When ping pong diplomacy turns ugly

It's the innocent pastime that has made a surprise return to vogue, but a bitter power struggle has plunged table tennis into uncertain times following an angry row and threats of legal action.

  • Published: 26/04/2013 at 01:49 PM
  • Newspaper section: news

This file photo shows table tennis players in action during the European Table Tennis Championships in Ostrava, on September 16, 2010. Table Tennis commands a mass following in China, the world's most populous country, and is undergoing a promising resurgence in Europe and the United States.

With the International Table Tennis Federation's (ITTF) presidential elections looming next month, challenger Stefano Bosi is locked in a wrangle with long-time leader Adham Sharara that could end up in the courts.

Last month, sparks flew when Bosi confronted Canada's Sharara with claims of conflicts of interest over his close involvement with companies that have dealt with the Ottawa-based body during his 14-year presidency.

According to a letter from Bosi to executive committee members, obtained by Chinese web portal Tencent, Sharara became "very aggressive" and "started to threaten people, suggesting everybody was behind a conspiracy".

Sharara's account of the meeting in Frankfurt is very different. This week, he told AFP that Bosi threatened to go public with his claims unless the president resigned, and became "very angry" when he refused.

Italy's Bosi, who is head of the European Table Tennis Union (ETTU), says Sharara is guilty of "several long-term, serious and persistent infringements of ITTF regulations and ethical principles", and may have broken the law.

He also suggests Sharara has breached the Olympic Charter by mixing personal and ITTF interests, and is calling for the International Olympic Committee to impeach the Egyptian-born Canadian.

Sharara, whose innovations include changes to the scoring system and equipment, says Bosi is trying to discredit him for political gain -- although he admits an "error of judgement" over certain ITTF real estate deals.

The backdrop to the dispute is a sport that commands a mass following in China, the world's most populous country, and is undergoing a promising resurgence in Europe and the United States.

Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon is the star behind America's SPiN clubs, while outdoor tables are now a common sight in cities in Britain, where Prince William's wife Catherine is one of many celebrities spotted playing.

Sharara has overseen a switch in the scoring system to 11 points, the introduction of a bigger ball and the banning of "speed glue", which gives bats greater spin, in an attempt to make the sport more watchable.

He is also a critic of China's unyielding dominance over the sport, calling it "devastating" for its wider image. At last year's Olympics, China swept all four gold medals for the second time running.

This week, Sharara said he remained a candidate for the May 15 election in Paris and reserved the right to launch legal action against Bosi for his "false and libel statements".

"Yes, I am still a candidate for president. Yes, I am confident of winning because I have a very large base of support and because my work and the work of my team is my strongest point," he told AFP via email.

"I believe that Mr. Bosi has the right to be a candidate for ITTF president, but I am very disappointed that he uses a platform of accusations and allegations, escalating them every day, as a means to be elected," he added.

"This is shameful. To be judged as guilty in the public (sic) is unacceptable, this judgement belongs to the legal authorities in a court of law."

Bosi, who announced a surprise bid for the presidency earlier this month, said table tennis needed much greater transparency, warning that poor management would "destroy" the sport.

"I'm confident associations will understand we need a transparent ITTF and support me, in their own interest," he said in comments also sent by email.

"This incorrect management system will destroy table tennis and its credibility on short-medium term."

The argument hinges on Sharara's directorship of TMS, the sport's official marketing company, and sales of Ottawa real estate belonging to the ITTF via a holding company headed by his wife.

Sharara says the TMS arrangement is purely for tax reasons and is beneficial to the ITTF, although he admits he should have been more transparent about the property deals -- and says the courts should decide their legality.

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency

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