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  • Thursday, February 25, 1999

    Table tennis players stand up for sport

    By MICHELLE MacAFEE -- Canadian Press
     CORNER BROOK, Nfld. -- Say what you will about the merits of table tennis as a competitive sport. Faazil Kassam has heard it all before.
     "No one takes it seriously in Canada," says Kassam, who has already picked up one gold medal for Ontario at the Canada Winter Games and hopes to win his second today.
     "People say, 'I could beat you,' or, 'it's not a physical sport.'"
     Then, there is the inevitable ping-pong misnomer.
     "I always tell people ping-pong is for the basement and table tennis is in the Olympics," says the well-spoken 13-year-old from Ottawa.
     If more rec-room critics tuned in to the sport, however, they would see players lunging to make contact with a ball travelling at speeds of up to 100 kilometres an hour (80 kilometres here in Corner Brook).
     Players often stand well back of the table during play and must be quick on their feet to cover their end.
     Some players serve with what looks like an awkward arm position to avoid tipping their opponents off as to the type of ball they'll get -- side spin, down spin, top spin, or no spin.
     And at the end of most best-of-three matches this week, players have left the floor slightly winded -- even sweaty.
     Still Kassam, an encyclopedia of table tennis trivia, concludes the sport might be a bit low-key for Canadian sports enthusiasts.
     "People are more rough and tough here so they're more into hockey and physical sports."
     But he points out the only sport played more often than table tennis around the world is soccer.
     Wennin Chiu, 13, of Ottawa, is the youngest player on the senior women's national team and is also in today's medal round for individual play. Both Chiu and Kassam helped Ontario defeat British Columbia in the team event earlier this week.
     Chiu began playing three years ago in a friend's basement, but later moved to a club with her sister, where the pair caught the attention of a coach who began further developing their skills.
     The training has paid off for Chiu with trips to recent international competitions in Sweden and Houston.
     "I have a lot of fun and it's not as dangerous as other sports," says Chiu.
     In Canada, fun is about all the best table tennis players have to look forward to.
     The top-10 players in the world can earn as much as $1 million a year, while the top 30 or 40 can still take home a respectable $400,000.
     However, those players almost always come from China, where table tennis is incorporated into school curriculum and draws crowds of 10,000.
     Other dominant countries include France, Sweden, and Germany, says Barbara Kontes, manager of the Ontario team and a former national team member.
     Kontes says her sport's struggle for recognition -- and funding -- is no different than that facing many other amateur sports in Canada, although Quebec has always managed to field a strong table tennis team at national competitions.
     Even Forrest Gump's famous computer-enhanced match against a Chinese opponent has failed to have much impact.
     "It's very hard to attract new players," says Kontes, who began playing as a child in Hungary before moving to Canada.
     "I don't think Canada is really into amateur sports so they don't put a lot of money into it."
     And the cost of playing can add up.
     Carefully crafted wooden rackets -- don't call them paddles -- cost about $100. Each sheet of rubber is another $50 and they must be replaced about once a month.
     Then there's the glue, which comes in slow, medium and fast varieties, and runs about $50 every few months.
     To help with their expenses, Chiu and Kassam recently earned corporate sponsorship from Butterfly, a company that makes table tennis equipment and apparel.

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