Olympic hopes in air at table tennis event

Athletes, region see championships as a step to Games

November 28, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

They aren't paid to endorse running shoes.

Their names aren't household words.

When they travel to compete, they spend their money, earned at jobs unrelated to their sport.

But 800 athletes came from around the world this weekend to smack around a little white ball at the Baltimore Convention Center, competing in an Olympic sport at a three-day tournament designed to promote the Baltimore-Washington region as a host for the Olympic Games.

The North American Teams Table Tennis Championship brought many of the world's top players in a series of matches to promote the sport. The event also is intended to polish the image of table tennis in the United States.

"People just see it as something they play around with but hopefully that's going to change soon," said Richard Lee, tournament president and co-owner of the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Potomac.

Lee, a senior at the Johns Hopkins University, said that he hopes to organize a national tour of some of the world's top players later this year that will increase awareness of the game, in which the ball travels 85 mph.

"The equipment is cheap, you don't get hurt and you can play until you're 80 years old," said Alan Williams, a tournament organizer.

Tim Boggan, still playing at 70, said the sport has not caught on in the United States as in Asia because the U. S. game lacks a national hero.

"We don't have a Bobby Fischer, like the chess world does," said Boggan, who was a member of the U.S. table tennis team invited to China in 1971.

Held for the second consecutive year in Baltimore, the championships also are intended to persuade the U. S. Olympic Committee that the Baltimore-Washington region can handle large-scale athletic events, such as the 2012 Olympics.

"It's [the tournament] a world-class event in an Olympic sport, and if Baltimore can show that it can host it, it increases our chances of getting the Olympics," said David Williams, Alan's brother and another organizer.

Lee and his group worked with members of the Washington-Baltimore Regional 2012 Coalition, formed to submit the region's bid to the USOC, to ensure that the table tennis championships would bolster the region's Olympic chances, said coalition spokesman Phil Mandel, who was at the convention center yesterday.

Matches were played out at 144 tables, spread out over a first-floor exhibition hall, with skill levels from world class to novice. Most of those watching were either players resting between matches or their families.

"Probably what a lot of people here are aiming for is to make the Olympics," said Sean Lonergan, a recent, two-time U. S. Collegiate Singles champion while at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Lonergan, 24, lives with his parents in Germantown so that he can train for Olympic trials that begin in January.

Every day, he spends about four hours playing, another hour running and lifting weights, and another hour working on his serve, hitting ball after ball.

He hopes to travel to Japan and China next year to train with Asian competitors who are masters at the sport, he said.

"You get to play with a variety of good players over there, and you need that variety to test your skill level," he said.

To travel, he will try to scrape the money together from corporate sponsors, he said.

"Money is always a problem," said Joannie Fu, as she watched her husband, three-time national champion David Zhuang, smash an opponent with topspin.

Fu, who lives with her husband in New Brunswick, N. J., said Zhuang is a computer technician who doesn't have the time to practice his game much anymore.

In China, members of national teams make their living at the sport, she said. "In China, table tennis is like baseball is here," said Fu. "We just have not developed an understanding and awareness of the sport."

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