Play in the 2014 ITTF-North American Championships, in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, concluded on Monday 1st September; not only did the date signal the end of the competition it also signalled the handing over of office.
President of the North American Table Tennis Union, Bruce Burton stepped down from the position, having been elected to the ITTF Executive Committee; a vacancy occurring following the transition of Adham Sharara to Chair of the International Table Tennis Federation and Thomas Weikert to the role of President.
Bruce Burton is succeeded by Canada’s Tony Kiesenhofer, the Executive Director of Table Tennis Canada.
“I started my professional life in the North American university system, my field was Comparative Literature”, explained Tony Kiesenhofer. “In the early 1990s, I volunteered for some table tennis competitions trying to improve the look of events; eventually, in 1996, I was offered the position of Technical Director of the Canadian Table Tennis Association and I did some contract work for the International Table Tennis Federation.”
Comparative Literature but in the world of information technology, Tony Keisenhofer is most knowledgeable; his played a major role in establishing the website of the International Table Tennis Federation.
World Veteran Championships
“My first big challenge came when I took over the responsibilities of organizing the 2000 World Veteran Table Tennis Championships in Vancouver”, continued Tony Kiesenhofer. “Judging by the feedback I still get today, when people reminisce about the Vancouver World Vets, we – the group of staff and volunteers – produced an enjoyable experience for the participants and a good event in general.”
Unquestionably, Vancouver is a splendid city to host such an event; good organisation in a geographically outstanding location destination, proved a winning formula.
“In 1999, I became the Executive Director of the Canadian Table Tennis Association; like the name of our association, now Table Tennis Canada, my title has changed but my responsibilities are the same; building and maintaining an active table tennis association in light of diminishing public funding.”
Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a resurgence in North America.
“The ITTF Development initiatives and the increased opportunities to participate that came with these initiatives, have brought more visibility of international table tennis to North America and have inspired some of our young players to reach higher”, stressed Tony Kiesenhofer. “Event presentation has improved tremendously.”
Initiatives have also come from other sources, highly motivated individuals who saw an opportunity.
“Most strikingly, the growth of table tennis as an organized sport, as opposed to ping-pong at home, is probably the one development that is most promising for the future”, explained Tony Kiesenhofer. “Here, the lion share of the credit must go to the private initiatives of individuals, often newcomers to the continent; be it in the Greater Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles, New York or the San Francisco Bay Area, Atlanta, Cary, Chicago, Calgary, and I know that I have missed many private, full-time table tennis clubs, they have fuelled participation in our sport, these clubs provide mostly excellent facilities and excellent coaching.”
However, as compared to Europe the area in North America is great that the organising matters on a continental or national basis can prove problematic.
“It is difficult for the national associations to catch up and provide the infrastructure that would help the clubs and, in turn, the athletes thrive even more”, continued Tony Keisenhofer. “I think that we are at a pivotal time in table tennis in North America, a moment that can change the role of the North American teams on the international courts from participants to competitors.”
Recently, there has been a shining example to illustrate the point made by Tony Kiesenhofer.
“We see signs of it on the junior level”, he explained. “A case in point is Lily Zhang’s Bronze medal at the Youth Olympic Games; now we need to convince sponsors and our public funding partners to join the team.”
Heart of the Matter
Undoubtedly, funding is at the heart of the matter; it is inescapable.
“The major problem is the lack of financial support for national teams from sponsors and from the public funding partners; without a reasonable and stable base grant, the national associations must rely on private initiatives and private coaching to develop national team members, instead of managing a steady athlete development stream as we know it from the leading table tennis nations”, said Tony Kiesenhofer. “Right behind the funding problem is the lack of a professional league infrastructure, such as a lack of coaches, promoters and crowds; young North American players lack a career path in table tennis, a lack for which we must find a solution”.
Many Rungs to Climb
Recently there has been progress but as Tony Kiesenhofer is well aware there a many more rungs of the ladder to climb.
“Despite the current explosion of table tennis in North America, there is still a long road ahead for our continent to catch up with Europe and Asia”, he added. “I am not only talking about the level of play; in North America, we are missing an infrastructure, a club system, a league structure, that systematically offers young players a path to the international level; we have made some progress over the last few years with young players, the ITTF Junior Circuit, ITTF World Cadet Challenge and the Hopes Programme have all contributed.”
Rungs of the ladder to climb; undoubtedly that is a fact but Tony Keisenhofer has a clear vision for the future.
“We need to become a regular stop on the ITTF World Tour; this will provide our players access to the highest level of competition and with some help from TMS and others, provide a product that we can sell to sponsors and television”, he explained. “We must continue to improve the ITTF North America Cup and the Championships in terms of presentation and promotion.”
Responses received from the recent ITTF-North American Championships suggest the major strides in promotion have been made.
“I would like to see us work towards a professional table tennis league; to start, we may explore to become a “farm team” operation of, say, the Chinese Super League or the German Bundesliga, in North America; then we will see where we can move from there”, continued Tony Kiesenhofer. “If we cannot get the interest from one or two of the major table tennis leagues, to explore a more modest start with North American teams; it is important that such a league serve the player development of North American players.”
Cleary the policy, promoted by Adham Sharara, of Promotion, Popularity and Profit Financing are high on the Tony Kiesenhofer agenda.
Liaise with Latin America
“Finally we must continue the discussions with our Latin American friends to find more opportunities to compete against each other in events that we can make attractive for sponsors and television”, concluded Tony Keisenhofer. “We must try to serve the development of our players; this would strengthen the promotion of table tennis on our continent.”
Challenging times ahead but there is undoubted progress in North America; undoubtedly under the guardianship of Tony Kiesenhofer that progress will continue.
ITTF Website – September 4th 2014