English players have been beating some of the world's finest, and radiate confidence for the European Championships, to be held in Birmingham in March; the BBC will beam hours of the same competition into our homes; and 10 full-time table tennis development officers roam the land.
The sport has been popular for years on the Continent. In Germany's Bundesliga, top players earn pounds 100,000 a year, and crowds of 5,000 are not uncommon. Why have we lagged behind, and why are we catching up now? Alan Ransome, chairman of the English Table Tennis Association (ETTA), explains: 'On the Continent, state funding has been available for a very long time. In Sweden every village has a specialist table tennis club open all week. We are trying to move in that direction, and funding is beginning to become available.'
He continues: 'Our system has always been based on the youth club, and much smaller clubs. We are trying to encourage the better clubs to move into better facilities where they can start coaching, run schools leagues, and provide a total package for their area.'
The plan is closest to fruition in Grantham, where the purpose- built Table Tennis Centre stages international, league and local matches. Ironically, given its location, it was funded not by private enterprise but by the district council, and kitted out by the state, through the Sports Council (which also sponsors the 10 roving development officers mentioned earlier). Has Grantham got value for money? 'It means the local youngsters can see internationals play and train,' Ian MacDonald, the centre's manager, says, 'and meet them. There'll be a Grantham international one day: there's a nine- year-old here, Steve Davis, who could go all the way.'
Steve may join a winning team. 'We had a very successful Swedish Open,' Don Parker, England's international team manager, says, 'which, since the Swedes are the best in the world at the moment, is our equivalent to Wimbledon.' He singles out Chen Xinhua, the ex- Chinese determined to represent his adopted country at the Atlanta Olympics, and Carl Prean, who beat Jan-Ove Waldner, the Olympic champion, in Sweden. But Parker also emphasises the contribution of Desmond Douglas, who at 38 may have to qualify for the European Championships, as an influence on the stars of today. 'He was a key player in the 1980s. At the end of the day's matches, Des would carry on playing, he'd be challenging people, and all these kids would look round and think, 'Well, if Des is still playing, we should be too.' '
Lisa Lomas took a silver medal in the last European Championships, in Stuttgart. In the next fortnight she'll compete in Germany, India and Italy, before returning to lead our team in this year's European contest. But Lisa says a combination of patriotism and adrenalin compensates for jet lag. 'When you're at the tournament,' she says, 'you just want to get on the table and win for your country. Nobody gets on the table and says, 'Oh, I can't be bothered.' '
Oh yes: the drug abuse. Solvent glues that improve bat performance will be banned from international competition in June. The ETTA led the way in campaigning for their abolition, citing potential addictive dangers to young players. Squeaky-clean, English table tennis.
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