Ping Pong players nearly as old as the sport itself

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Meet the stars of an inspirational new film about veteran athletes - and think again about what it means to be old

When Les D’Arcy starts talking, stopping him becomes a challenge. He’s 91 and lives where he was born, in Wakefield in West Yorkshire. “When I’d achieved what I wanted to in table tennis - my first world title - I decided I’d have a go in weightlifting,” he says. “When I was 84 and I’d become European champion, I decided to go into athletics.”

He continues: “Last year I was competing in the US in the shot, discus, hammer, weights and the Fosbury flop, or high jump. I had the pleasure of meeting Dick Fosbury. I asked for his advice about the Fosbury flop. He said I shouldn’t do that. Why not? Oh, he says, that’s for young people, he says, with flexible backs.”

Then D’Arcy breathes, displaying none of the symptoms of the chest problems he says have forced him to slow down, at least a bit. After several lifetimes in sport, in defiance of various doubters, the nonagenarian athlete is now revelling in minor fame and the opportunity to tell his story. He’s one of the stars of Ping Pong, a new documentary that follows eight pensioners as they compete in the over 80s category at the 2010 table tennis World Veterans Championships in China. The youngest is Terry Donlon, from Stockport. He’s 83 and has nearly died at the ping pong table. The oldest, an Australian called Dorothy DeLow, is 101, or about as old as table tennis itself.

Hugh and Anson Hartford, brothers in their early thirties based in London, are touring Britain this summer to present their first feature documentary in what is a big year for sport - and sport on film. Chariots of Fire, perhaps the greatest sports movie of all, has been digitally restored for a new cinema release from 13 July, more than 30 years after the British drama won four Oscars. Its run has also been timed to build excitement for the Olympics, which has already inspired several new films.

Ping Pong is in cinemas now after well-received screenings at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto in April and, last month, at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. The film played there alongside Glory Road, about the Olympic dreams of three young boxers from Liverpool.

The subjects of Ping Pong are slower on their feet and considerably longer in the tooth than those athletes who will be bringing their Olympic ambition to London in the next few weeks, but the Hartfords’ film shows they lack nothing in competitive or sporting spirit. When Dorothy, the centenarian, comes up against Lisa Modlich, 86, a waspish Texan and former Austrian aristocrat, Modlich cattily notes her greater chance of winning, observing of Dorothy: “She can’t move!”

Anson Hartford says he found inspiration for Ping Pong in the triumph-over-adversity narrative of Rocky, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 boxing masterpiece. “It’s so ultimately Hollywood, with the perfect three-part narrative and payoff. We were also quite quickly taken by the idea that the best sports movies have very little sport. You need the right drama first.”

The Hartfords wanted their film to be “a sports movie about getting old.” Anson’s brother, Hugh, first heard about the veteran championships in an in-flight magazine feature about Dorothy, then only 97. “The image of her wearing national strip made you question what kind of person would be doing that,” Anson recalls from the London office of his production company, Banyak Films. “They had to be interesting.”

He adds: “There was a line about Dorothy arriving at the table in a wheelchair and the opponent thinking it would be a walkover. But Dorothy got up and beat her. She was being quite playful about her old age and our preconceptions about ageing.”

Dorothy’s mischievous streak is evident in the film. “Why are you participating in this competition?” a booming Chinese TV reporter asks her. “You’re SO old.” Dorothy, now sitting again, thinks for a second. “I’m not old!” she replies.

Ping Pong’s Rocky is Terry Donlon, the other British player among those who the Hartfords follow from their hometowns in England, China, Australia, Sweden and Germany, to the biennial championships in Mongolia. We see him in the opening sequences in hospital. His prostate cancer has returned. “He won’t be able to play like he used to,” says his partner, Sylvia.

Rewind six months and we see Terry gasping for breath in a nail-biting clash with a lesser player. He’s survived kidney cancer, too, as well as failing lungs. But as he explains before a match, “I don’t want to grow old and sit in a chair and watch television and just die.”

Ping Pong delivers a Rocky-esque dénouement that won’t be spoiled here, but rest assured that Terry, like Les D’Arcy, is alive and well. Both men were planning to compete this month in the world championships in Sweden. “I don’t like giving in or giving anything away,” Donlon says by phone last week, after a day on the bowls lawn. He still plays tabletennis at the Stockport club he helps to run. “Last night I couldn’t play for love nor money because I couldn’t get my breath. My doctors say carry on, just carry on. What else is there to do but sit down, mope and think about the wrong things you’ve done in life?”

As well as challenging preconceptions about ageing, the Hartfords want their film to inspire older people to take up tabletennis. The night before its more glossy screening at Sheffield, Ping Pong played to an audience at a retirement home in the city as part of a programme of events run in partnership with Age UK and the English Table Tennis Association.

“It was fairly surreal to play the film to a purely octogenarian audience,” Anson Hartford says. “People laughed at different moments than at other screenings but the response was great and the room seemed to be full of excited energy at the end.”

The project also includes ping pong packages containing bats, nets and a how-to DVD. “The owner of the retirement village also turned up and was so taken by the film and the package that he bought one for each of the homes he runs,” Hartford says.

Donlon has seen the effect the film can have on older viewers. “I showed it to one of my friends, who’s also 83, and she just sat down for 75 minutes and never took her eyes off the screen,” he says. “Then she turned around and said, ‘what have I done with my life?’”

Donlon adds: “I told her she could come to my club and learn to play. I said tabletennis keeps your mind young and your body fit. I said I’m 83 but feel 31. She said she might give it a try.”

pingpongfilm.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence