You wouldn’t believe how surprised I was a couple of months ago to find, in the run-up to the Olympic Games, a large number of table tennis tables set up across Sheffield’s city centre.
No matter where you’d walk – the Winter Gardens, Cathedral, Fargate, Barker’s Pool – there’s a good chance you’d stumble on a table inviting anyone to have a go at the sport. What’s more, these tables were usually occupied. With people having fun.
A perfect example of this was outside Sheffield’s railway station, which had four tables lined up near the entrances. Whilst one was free, the others were taken up by two fairly serious-looking athletes obviously trying to one-up each other, a group of BMX-riding children who looked like they’d usually be causing a nuisance and a father watching his two young kids having a lark about, most likely trying out table tennis for the first time. All of them had taken the opportunity to walk up to a table, pick up a bat from either side of the table and have a go for free. Perhaps what was more remarkable was that all the balls and bats were intact; none of them appeared to have been stolen, although I concede they may have been replaced.
Either way, I took up one of the middle tables and had a go myself. Ignoring the idea of being watched (because I clearly wasn’t), my initial feeling was that of when I used to frequently have a go at air hockey in my local amusement arcades. You and your opponent heading to opposite ends of a table, fumbling at the bottom for your ball/puck and frenetically and proceeding to smack the heck out of each other for a few minutes. Obviously, that didn’t quite turn out this way – I’m a complete table tennis novice and can’t maintain a rally for more than three hits. What was more important was the fun I was having. The idea that I was pretty much doing exactly what the Olympians and Paralympians would be doing in a week or two, minus the extraordinary shots and death-defying dives.
I own a table tennis bat and a few novelty balls, but no table or no net, so the purchase from four years ago was largely pointless. I also own a squash racket and balls, a football, a Frisbee and swimming shorts. The problem with owning all of these is that it almost always costs money to go out and enjoy these sports and improve at them. The running side of athletics is pretty much the only one someone can just get dressed for and go outside to do. This cost aspect is one of the biggest barriers children and their parents have when it comes to participation and may well be the main problem the people behind the “Olympic Legacy” have to overcome if they want to make a difference.
The table tennis exercise was only made possible thanks to money from the English Table Tennis Association (ETTA), the Ping! Sheffield initiative as well as Lottery funding, so it isn’t too much of a surprise that it only lasted a month. Even so, I don’t see what’s stopping more consortiums of sporting organisation coming together to provide new opportunities in other areas of activity. How about British Volleyball and the council come together to install a temporary court of sand in the city to encourage youngsters to play beach volleyball? We know how popular it was during the Olympics but also realise that our entrants were way below the international standard in the competition. Hell, I’ve seen it done in France and that looked like a whole lot of fun for a young teenager. Perhaps even child-friendly, mini courts to play hockey and good old Kwik-Cricket somewhere around the city, as long as its free and exciting?
An obvious barrier is funding, but in a year following one of the most exciting Olympics and Paralympics ever, particularly ones hosted in this country, shouldn’t we push the boat out a little bit and present very public ways of joining in and having fun? 40 table tennis tables are just a start.