by Olalekan Okusan, ITTF Member Relations Media Officer
Nevertheless, all’s well that ends well, and after a complicated period due to the pandemic, Pablo Perez, the main helm of Para table tennis for the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) is very positive ahead of the Games:
“With two more medals events in teams, Table Tennis continue being the third sport in the Paralympics in number of participants after athletics and swimming, what shows the good status our sport has in the Paralympic movement.” Pablo Perez
The increased events appear in the team competition. In Rio de Janeiro there were two events in men’s standing (class 6-8, class 9-10); in Tokyo, there will be three (class 6-7, class 8, class 9-10). Similarly, five years ago for the women, there was just one standing category (class 6-10), and now there are two (class 6-8, class 9-10).
“With 54 different NPCs represented in Tokyo, we can be satisfied with the development of our sport worldwide. Nevertheless, we don’t hide from the many challenges that we have ahead, mainly the participation of women and junior players in general.” Pablo Perez
Perez Pablo, a man who pays great attention to detail, is delighted in the progress being made, the way the world has been embracing the sport with more female and junior players appearing on the scene.
“There is definitely a margin of improvement. We should grow faster to attract more women, while the growth of athletes with intellectual impairment is also slower than expected, especially when considering that the population of those athletes is bigger in comparison with other types of impairments.” Pablo Perez
Positive, the response from Pablo Perez is the same with regards to the COVID-19 situation, a pandemic that has blighted sport at all levels.
“Given the circumstances, we have been very lucky. We had to cancel only four events out of 30 that were scheduled as part of the qualification process and, most importantly, we were able to offer this June in Slovenia one last chance to players who could not qualify during the regular period. 209 players from 46 NPCs had the opportunity to prove that they deserve their ticket to Tokyo in a very exciting and pioneering event in para table tennis.” Pablo Perez
Intense competition lies ahead in Tokyo; overall, in the men’s singles, 11 classes, one less for the women with class 1 and class 2 being combined. Importantly, since the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, all necessary classification is completed several weeks prior to the tournament, the so-called “zero” policy.
“Another important challenge that we have faced was related to classification. The zero classification policy that was introduced by IPC in 2014 has been set aside for several sports due to the massive cancellations of events. In table tennis, we did most of our homework in 2019 and the beginning of 2020 and we only had to solve a handful of cases in 2021. We were able to complete the task in June 2021, therefore, table tennis will still maintain the zero classification policy in Tokyo that is so important for the athletes and for better planning of the competition.” Pablo Perez
Unquestionably, Para Table Tennis is making immense progress, the large number of entries for tournaments endorse that fact; the competition and standard of play is advancing.
“Since I started attending international competitions in 2005, I have noticed much more professionalism in all areas. Tournament organisers have bigger and stronger structures with many more ITTF member associations supporting international Para events when not organising them directly. Also, the athletes are more professional.
The top players have access to high-performance centres in their countries, government grants, or private sponsorships that allow them to dedicate themselves fully to table tennis. It is no longer unusual to see in para events other support personnel than coaches such as physiotherapists, psychologists or nutritionists. Those types of professionals were unknown 15 years ago on the Para circuit.” Pablo Perez
Notably, progress is being made at all levels.
“I see that many Member Associations have already started specific development programmes for Para in order to fill the gap that the retirement of their current stars might create. On that matter, ITTF High Performance and Development (HPD) Department has included in the Participation Programme, a specific service to help member associations to integrate para table tennis into their structures. Table tennis is a very inclusive sport, and all parties (ITTF member associations, NPCs, and para players) can benefit from well-planned and honest cooperation. I truly believe that the programme prepared by Polona Cehovin, who heads the HPD and her team can help many member associations to reach the next level.” Pablo Perez
However, the current item on view is Tokyo 2020.
“I expect plenty of excitement and many surprising results. I think this Paralympic Games in Tokyo will have the most unpredictable winners because we don´t know how the pandemic has affected each one of the players at physical and psychological levels. Some athletes will arrive in Tokyo after more than 18 months without any international competition. Unless there is a long-term injury, this never happens to an athlete, and managing that lack of competition properly will be one of the keys. We have already seen it at the Paralympic World Qualification event with many top-seeded athletes who did not advance from the round-robin group, resulting in many winners who could not believe that they achieved qualification at a tournament where they were not considered as favourites.” Pablo Perez
Most notably in Tokyo, for the first time, both losing semi-finalists will receive bronze medals; there will be no play-off match.