27 May 2019

Improving the safety, quality and integrity of the sport are at the centre of current tests to regulate the thickness of racket rubbers, explains ITTF Equipment Manager, Claudia Herweg. A pilot project for now, its future effect will be discussed and determined by the ITTF Executive Committee in due course.

What is boostering and why is it such a big topic right now?

“Boostering is an after treatment of approved racket rubbers. By applying boosters to them, the thickness of the rubber expands, which in turn increases the spin and speed of the rubber. It’s a big topic because a lot of top players are using boosters and we need to be able to detect these after treatments for a whole variety of reasons that I’ll list below.”

At present, after treatments are strictly prohibited in table tennis. What are the arguments for changing the rule and those for keeping it the same?

“The potential argument to allow boostering is based on the notion that it’s difficult to measure and that players would be on the right side of the law again. One other argument is that boosters are perhaps harmless. However, we are setting out to prove that in fact boostering can be measured, as I’ll explain in greater detail later.

“It’s important to note that if we were to change the rule, we would not only be allowing boosters, but any after treatment on approved products. This would pose significant issues, as the ITTF is responsible for ensuring that there are no health risks related to our equipment or our sport as a whole. If we allow after treatments, how can we keep control of which kinds of substances will be used? This is simply not an option. Chemicals must stay in the hands of the professional manufacturing companies.

“Another argument against changing the rule is related to sport development, which is also a key responsibility of the ITTF. The interaction between the ball, the table and the racket plays a huge role in determining the quality of our sport. We need to be able to understand and control this triangle, so that we can continue to take table tennis in the right direction. Uncontrollable after treatments on rubbers would certainly not help us in this regard and there is already enough to work on in terms of developing the ball and the table.

“Fairness among the top players presents another crucial reason for keeping the rule in place. We need to be able to check the rackets of all professionals in a precise way to make sure that there are fair conditions for all participants.”

What is being done to counteract boostering?

“We started a pilot study with an institute in Germany to detect after treatments with boosters. They are using a very precise device, a kind of gas chromatography. The first results were positive and we will talk about the next steps at the beginning of June.

“The second step is a pilot project, which started at the recently held ITTF Challenge Croatia Open in Zagreb, to test a new way to measure the thickness of rubbers. Boosters expand rubbers and this impacts greatly on their playing properties. On a pro player level, it makes a huge difference whether you use 4.0 mm rubbers or 4.2 mm. The current method of measurement leaves options for many to cheat openly. We need to make sure that all players’ rubbers abide by ITTF rules, which means no thicker than 4.0 mm.

“In this pilot project, we are running an extended test with our Mini Rae devices on the sponge side of the dismantled rubber with the target of possibly reducing the allowed ppm value.”

What are the results from the first tests held in Croatia?

“First of all, I would like to say “thank you” to all participants of the ITTF Challenge Croatia Open in Zagreb. It’s a sensitive topic, but we need to test these things before we can decide whether to actually implement them. It was positive to see the players taking all of this on board, even if there were some queries about the reasons for testing and the new procedure. Ultimately however, the top players understand very well that the current method of measurement is not precise and will not protect them against unfairness.

“From approximately 170 participants, we have checked 70 rackets, of which 31 were dismantled, mostly only one side. Of these 31 rackets, 6 rubbers fell outside our guidelines, which is around 20%. That is quite a lot from my point of view.”

What will be the next steps?

“The Executive Committee will receive the full report from the Croatia Open, so that we can discuss a further tournament in which to check the revised procedure. In this pilot project, all test results are being held without any consequence for players at the events and we will compensate if the rubber is no longer usable after testing.

“We know that most of the players do not like to dismantle their rubbers. We don’t want to disturb the player before a match, so we only check their racket after their last match in the tournament. This was absolutely no problem for a lot of top players, who were keen not to lose against somebody using an illegal racket. To measure the thickness on a dismantled rubber is very straightforward and precise.”

What are the main challenges ahead?

“We want and need to create a better understanding that our aim is to make our sport fairer for the players. Each pro who is using legal rubbers will benefit from this. The performance of the player should determine results, not the use of illegal equipment. To conduct tests after the final match ought to be possible in table tennis. It’s common practice in a lot of other sports and we need to make sure that fairness is also at the very centre of our sport.

“Beyond the topic of boostering, we are working on a new device to measure friction on table surfaces and the nature of how the ball bounces on them. We need to reduce the range of different bounces, because all players suffer from these different characteristics of ball and table combinations.

“Moreover, we are working with the industry on further improvements of the ball quality. It’s of fundamental importance to enhance the interaction between the triangle I mentioned earlier: ball – table – racket, so that players around the world can play their best table tennis. The players can choose their racket, but they cannot choose the ball and table. These two elements must be of an extremely high and consistent quality.

“We need to keep pushing forwards for positive changes in order to enjoy table tennis even more in the future!”

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