11 Dec 2020

After 238 days of no activity, table tennis was revived on the world stage on 8 November 2020 through the #RESTART series. In doing so, it became one of the first international sports to return to action amidst the COVID-19 pandemic which had halted all ITTF events since 15 March.

Three prestigious events held in China, and a further showpiece in Macao, featured players of the highest calibre. The ambitious series proved a huge success, particularly given the challenging circumstances faced from the start. Most importantly, zero COVID-19 cases were recorded throughout the entire bubble: a significant achievement and one that was only made possible through meticulous planning and many months of hard work behind the scenes.

China plays crucial role in #RESTART success story

#RESTART would not have become the major success story it is today without the determined efforts of everyone involved from the Chinese side of the operation. A total of 1,497 people were inside the bubble in Mainland China. To date, Table Tennis is the sole international sporting event to return to China since the start of the global pandemic.

Collectively, the local authorities and all the volunteers made the impossible, possible. From providing equipment to carrying out the mammoth, yet vital task of COVID testing, China’s role in the return of international table tennis was key to the overall success of the process.

“Thanks to everyone for all the amazing work. We had some luck with zero COVID-19 cases throughout the bubble. We have made so many special memories and I am very proud about this historic moment for our sport.” – Thomas Weikert, ITTF President

“To restart table tennis has been a huge effort. Back in June, we knew that this pandemic was not going away soon and that organising international events would be very difficult. We knew that we had to try to find a special way. There are so many people to thank: the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) who have done an amazing job led by President Liu Guoliang, our Executive Committee, the Local Organising Committees in Weihai and Zhengzhou, the extremely dedicated staff of the ITTF and CTTA, who have worked so diligently for us to make this happen. I also want to thank especially the players who have made big sacrifices to be here and go through different circumstances to prepare for these events. Everyone involved in the process to make #RESTART a reality are true table tennis heroes. We can proudly say that all the hard work has paid off. We are back in action and the future for our sport is bright!” – Steve Dainton, ITTF CEO and WTT Director

“I think the greatest takeaway from this whole process is to see the determination and love for table tennis around the world. The ITTF Executive Committee’s decision to bring about the return of the World Cups and the ITTF Finals, and then for China to carry out the challenge was a very brave one. The pressure associated with this process was completely different from previous experience as epidemic prevention measures became crucial to the restart of tournament action. China had the courage to accept such an opportunity and challenge, showing to the world that it can successfully prevent and control the epidemic.” – Liu Guoliang, CTTA President and WTT Council Chair

Player safety paramount

From the moment the #RESTART series was announced to the world, the ITTF made the protection of the players’ health and safety and everyone involved in bringing the show to life a top priority.

A comprehensive list of measures was put together after consultation with the World Health Organisation (WHO), taking inspiration from other sporting bodies including the NBA, NHL and the UEFA Champions League, all of whom had successfully managed their return during the pandemic, adapting hygiene standards and the bubble rule to fit within the table tennis infrastructure.

116 people, including players, coaches and staff from 27 countries and regions, entered through Shanghai, Chengdu and Qingdao, and eventually arrived in Weihai and Zhengzhou. CTTA ordered a total of 1,141 PCR tests for the participants, with thousands more provided to all the LOC volunteers, hotel staff and drivers. Tests were carried out every three days during the bubble, while daily tests were conducted for those in the higher risk categories. All of these numbers highlight the magnitude involved to enable the return of international table tennis.

“Maybe a few thousand people were mobilised to prepare these competitions for a handful of athletes. We as players understand that this scenario didn’t come easily.” – Ma Long (China), men’s World no.3, reigning Olympic and World champion

Collaboration the key

The welfare of the players was of paramount importance and there were many logistical hurdles that also required acute attention.

Having agreed that all events would need to be grouped together under air-tight bubble conditions, the ITTF contacted National Associations across the world to find a potential host for #RESTART. Germany and China were the two countries to offer their services and, after careful evaluation, the ITTF Executive Committee voted in favour of the latter option. There were additional important details to address ranging from VISA applications to arranging travel, a particularly difficult dilemma to solve at a time where flight cancellations are a frequent occurrence.

Naturally, the ITTF did not carry the burden on its own with the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA), Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) and the Local Organising Committees (LOCs) all offering invaluable assistance from a logistical viewpoint immediately from the early stages of the process. In addition to VISAs and flights, other key areas such as hotel arrangements, transport to the venues and venue security were also managed carefully thanks to close collaboration with CTTA, COC and the LOCs.

“During this pandemic, the ITTF and CTTA have put in an immense amount of effort while all the local authorities have given us tremendous support.” – Chen Meng (China), women’s World no.1

“It’s fantastic! We know how difficult it is to make this happen during these tough times, so of course we are happy that the ITTF and CTTA made this happen.” – Jörgen Persson (Sweden), coach and former World champion

What stands out from the entire process was the sheer scale of the project. From the planning stages through to the end of play, the complications of the pandemic presented the organising bodies with numerous challenges to overcome. When organising professional sporting events of the highest quality, there is always the possibility of the unexpected, yet during these unprecedented times the maze becomes even trickier to navigate.

Air-tight bubble

Strict hygiene standards were enforced throughout the course of #RESTART. Player transportation vehicles to the playing venues were disinfected every three to four hours and there was no mixing with other people from outside of the bubble, including the shuttle bus drivers who were completely isolated from the passengers.

The stringent nature of the bubble meant any exposure to parties outside its protection also had to be accounted for. Hotel staff in Weihai, where the Dishang 2020 ITTF World Cups took place, were required to remain at the facility for an entire month to avoid outside exposure and also underwent regular testing throughout. At the JW Marriott hotel in Zhengzhou, where the table tennis bubble was based during the Bank of Communications 2020 ITTF Finals, special preparations were made to prevent any interaction with the general population. Upwards of five floors were exclusively reserved for everyone involved with #RESTART, with access to special designated elevators, a fully cordoned off restaurant area away and a dedicated entrance offering transportation to the playing venue, keeping the bubble completely air-tight.

When training during the isolation period, players could only interact with those who were placed in the same small training groups to ensure the lowest possible risk of transmission, while athletes who travelled alone and were not placed in a group, trained with the assistance of a robot.

Admittance to the venues was only allowed upon the return of a negative test. Anyone trying to gain access without one was turned away immediately. Mask wearing was mandatory for everyone entering the playing venues, including match officials. The only exception to this rule applied to the playing area while action was underway. The moment players and officials left the court, compulsory mask wearing came back into effect.

“I’m thankful for all the staff conducting PCR tests every week, it was tough for us and tough for them as well. I’m grateful to all the ball pickers and cleaners as well, as players we don’t have to do these jobs and we don’t know their difficulties but looking at them we can tell it is a tough role. They did all of this for us. Thank you very much!” – Tomokazu Harimoto (Japan), men’s World no.5

Fans make long-awaited return

To the joy of the table tennis community, #RESTART saw the return of spectators to the stands. Pulling out all the stops, the symbolic moment arrived at the Bank of Communications 2020 ITTF Finals and at WTT Macao.

The decision to allow fans at the two events was greenlit by the local authorities and the LOCs were responsible for ensuring no interaction between the spectators and members of the bubble – a major logistical challenge, but one which was well worth the effort. The presence of fans, cheering on the athletes, undoubtedly brought the events to life.

“Thank you, China and to the Chinese people. It was very nice to play in front of some fans. Keep supporting our beloved sport. We just love table tennis and I hope we will keep going from strength to strength.” – Simon Gauzy (France), men’s World no.20

Prepared for the unexpected

When putting together a series of events as comprehensive as #RESTART was, one must also be prepared for any potential bumps along the way – a point that carried increased importance in 2020.

Firstly, the rules put in place to protect the health of everyone travelling to China were to be followed with no exceptions. Anyone not adhering to the safety guidelines would have been prohibited from taking any further part in the series and advised to leave.

Contingency plans were also drawn up in the event of a positive test with any affected person required to quarantine further. One of the major advantages of the reduced player training groups meant that even if one of the athletes had tested positive during an event, the action would still have been able to continue with up to 90% of the playing field unaffected.

International table tennis is back!

No matter which way you look at it, the task undertaken to make #RESTART a reality was nothing short of remarkable. The world-class events witnessed many epic and unforgettable moments, etched forever in the history of the sport, all conducted in a safe environment. The zero COVID-19 cases are testament to the incredible planning, organisation and teamwork behind the scenes.

#RESTART has proven that, even against all the odds in the midst of a global pandemic, the sport of table tennis continues to persevere and provide entertainment for its fans across the globe.

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