Tuesday, 25 September 2018

GAME PLAN: How lamentable deficiencies hamper table tennis, a vibrant national sport

YOU GOT SERVED: Opportunities for J'can players to enhance their skills are lacking.

INSIDE the National Arena on this groovy Sunday evening, the loudest cheers are reserved for the Jamaican players. A sizeable audience is watching the intense competition unfold as the 60th Caribbean Senior Table Tennis Championships take centrestage in city Kingston. Eight playing tables (four on either side) are surrounded by spectator stands, creating a mini ampitheatre setting.

There is Jamaica’s top-ranked star Simon Tomlinson, skinny and athletic, taking on a Bajan opponent at Table 4. A few feet away, a Guyanese contender has his teammates on tenterhooks as his match heats up. We also catch action from highly skilful players representing Martinique and the Dominican Republic. Ten countries in all are competing at this week-long tournament, with a grand finale slated for Saturday. 

It’s not by chance that Jamaica is playing host to the championships at this significant moment in its history. “It’s part of a strategic plan,” says Godfrey Lothian, president of Table Tennis Jamaica since 2013. “We have set ourselves certain targets, and one of them is to position Jamaica as the hub for table tennis in the region. We have the people who can organize these competitions. But one of the major problems that we have is finding the resources. We have the manpower. We just have to find the resources that we need.” 

But Lothian will be the last person to bash the Jamaican government where support is concerned. “The government has been helpful. They assist where they can,” he explains, seated inside his tiny office, also housed at the Arena. But they’ll need more, having set their sights on becoming the regional hub for the sport. “What we would love the government to help us with is setting up a centre of excellence. Our players would be able to use the facilities to train on a regular basis, not just for the two hours or on the weekends. What we envision is table tennis becoming like a profession for players. We want it to become an option as a career path.”

The president adds, “The development of that centre would greatly enhance our ability to compete internationally.” 

And the national representatives need all the practice they can get, Lothian hastens to add, especially the seniors. “I’ve seen some growth in the sport since I became president, especially among the youngsters. We have an 11-year-old on the Jamaican side playing in this senior championships. And last year we came second in the region at the junior level. Where we’re really struggling is at the senior level. After this tournament we have to look seriously at what improvements can be made to the programme.” 

Overall, he’s concerned but optimistic. “I think we are now at a crossroads,” the veteran 62-year-old sports administrator says. “We are doing a lot with some success, but we want our players to do better at the senior level.” 

For Oliver Mair, who has both played table tennis and served on the JTTA executive, greater support is key. “We have a lot of enthusiastic young players who want to do well, and I think we need to put a lot of the focus on those younger ones, give them greater support and even opportunities to go overseas to develop their skills,” Mair tells TALLAWAH, calling by phone. “What I’ve heard is that a lot of the young players in other territories have done stints in countries like China, where they get specialized training. So what can we do to generate more interest in the sport and secure greater support?” 

That’s also part of the strategic plan. “[The association] will be having a retreat by October/November to discuss the way forward. And we want to discuss things like coaching clinics and local school competitions,” says Lothian, who is up for Vice-President at this week’s regional AGM. 

But for now the focus is on putting on a successful, high-energy 2018 championships, the likes of which Jamaica will be hosting frequently for years to come.

>> The 60th C’bean Senior Table Tennis Champs is on at the National Arena from Sep. 23-29.

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