Inside Lines: Hearn puts more ping into pong with new table plan


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The Independent Online

"Ubiquitous" is a word that might have been coined for Barry Hearn. He is everywhere, and into everything.

You name it, he's done it, from boxing to bowls via an assortment of telegenic activities, some of which he has jazzed up and reinvented, others he has simply invented. Now one of the Essex entrepreneur's new year resolutions is to give another sport a makeover. Ping pong. Not table tennis, you'll note. His World Championship of Ping Pong, taking place at London's Alexandra Palace next weekend, promises to be a real blast from the past. Out go the pimpled rubber-and-foam bats – instead 64 international competitors will use ones covered with sandpaper.

"I'd like to take it back to when it was an exciting sport," says Hearn, who will bring on the dancing girls and fanfares in a darts-style revamp for the Sky-screened event. "The foam bat has killed it because it's so spin-orientated and doesn't lend itself to TV. I'm all about what looks good on the box. You can't beat the old bat. You smacked it and it made that lovely noise. You had rallies where you would stand 16 feet behind the table and smash it."

Britain's top player, Andrew Baggaley, says he needed little persuading to swap new bat for old, especially when he learned of a £62,000 prize pot, with £12,000 to the winner. Baggaley, 29, said: "I'm all for bringing a breath of fresh air to the sport."

A fresh whiff of waff, as Boris might say.

Unhappy New Year

Table tennis is among those sports left with little hope of a prosperous new year as a result of the cuts at UK Sport, whose "no compromise" funding policy seems actually more Thatcherite than Dickensian.

"I have never received individual funding, but where is the legacy for the new generation of players?" asks Andrew Baggaley.

One of his predecessors, Matthew Syed, claims that UK Sport have been blinded by the lust for gold. "They have lost the plot," he said. "Socially inclusive inner-city sports like volleyball, handball, basketball and table tennis have been cynically shafted by an organisation that has lavished public money on posh sports such as equestrianism, rowing and sailing. Meanwhile, high-potential children from poorer families, who could never afford elite coaching without public support, are left on the scrapheap."

Question: Why should UK Sport be the sole arbiter of who gets what? Would it not be fairer to have an independent panel making the final assessment on any recommendations?

Tarnished silver

As predicted, it's trebles all round as Sir Brad, Sir Ben, Dame Sarah and virtually the entire cast of 2012 celebrate their honours. But not everyone is joining in, especially in Northern Ireland.

Pointing out it was not only gold which earned gongs (gymnastics silver medallist Louis Smith received an MBE), the Belfast Telegraph asks: "Why not our Coleraine oarsmen Richard and Peter Chambers, who won a silver in one of the most gruelling contests of the entire Olympics? It would have made sense, if nothing else, to keep some parity with the awards to England, Scotland and Wales, in this saga of missed opportunities. Perhaps our competitors were overlooked because we are the United Kingdom's second-class citizens and that people of influence in London and elsewhere could not care less about us."

Boxing's tall story

Among the Christmas publications that came my way was the joint biography of giant world heayyweight champions Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. When I say it's a tall story, I'm not kidding. It stands 4ft 5in and weighs well over a stone. How did Santa get that one down the chimney?