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Ping Pong players nearly as old as the sport itself

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.”