“The important thing is to participate. “ The famous formula falsely attributed to Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1) is rarely applied as well as in French table tennis. Launched with enthusiasm in the Olympic arena in Tokyo, the Blues have not won any medals since Sydney in 2000.
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Monday July 26, the mixed doubles remained at the foot of a 100% Asian podium, beaten sharply (4 sets to 0) in the semi-final by a Taiwanese pair. If they narrowly missed a medal, Emmanuel Lebesson and Jia Nan Yuan fulfilled their contract, doing better than their world ranking (they are seventh). And by making thousands of French viewers vibrate at one hour of good listening (13 hours). Their boss, the president of the Federation Gilles Erb had settled the gauge before leaving: “Medals if possible, but above all to talk about ping (this is the term used among initiates) to overcome the crisis ”.
Table tennis is one of the indoor sports most affected by the Covid-19 epidemic, victim of a demographics particularly sensitive to confinements: on the one hand, children for a long time deprived of school and sport inside, on the other hand, seniors who are particularly prone to severe forms of Covid-19. “We have lost more than 30% of our licensees, but we are counting a lot on good results in Tokyo to boost membership at the start of the school year”, underlines the national technical director (DTN), Jean-Nicolas Barelier, head of the French ping delegation in Tokyo.
Prithika Pavade, a gifted 16-year-old
However, there is no question of increasing the pressure on the shoulders of the table tennis players, “ they already have enough like that “, explained Rozenn Jacquet-Yquel, director of performance, on the sidelines of the first exchanges of the ladies’ singles where the young Prithika Pavade, great hope of French table tennis, made two small laps and left. At 16, the youngest of the 378 athletes of the French delegation is hatched by the Federation, which sees her as one of the few Europeans capable of challenging the supremacy of Chinese table tennis players, for whom the Covid-19 has been less penalizing: “They have such a level of internal competition that, even without traveling, they have been able to continue to progress”, decrypts Jean-Nicolas Barelier.
A sign of the quality of the French high level, the Blues managed for the first time to qualify in all categories: men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, team event and mixed doubles. Will they do as well in Paris 2024? This is the goal, built in particular by focusing on the performance of promising young talents, such as Prithika Pavade or Alexandre Cassin, 22, who will only compete in the team event, Sunday 1er August.
Badminton overshadows table tennis
These young table tennis players, allied to the solid elders – including the 19e world, Simon Gauzy, 26 – are called to become the flagship of a sport in need of a serious duster. Because the disaffection for the little celluloid ball does not date from the Covid-19. The tables installed in public gardens or schools have sounded hollow for a long time and the melting of the federation’s membership had begun before the epidemic. Ping is a victim of badminton competition, judged by teachers to be more fun and accessible. In table tennis as in tennis, you have to lose and miss a lot before really progressing, which discourages childish goodwill.
The clubs also suffer from a rigid functioning that may have scared teenagers and young adults with families. “We register at the beginning of the year and we suddenly have to do team tournaments every weekend, it no longer corresponds to modern practices”, continues Jean-Nicolas Barelier, in office since March. He is considering many changes in his discipline: development of an application for smartphones allowing practitioners to meet without going through a club, organizing, like running, meetings with a trainer in public places, etc. Once the flame is extinguished, a lot of work awaits him.
A sport under Covid constraint
All athletes are affected by the atmosphere of empty stadiums and the health restrictions imposed on the Olympic Village, but table tennis players are directly impacted in their sporting practice. For example, they are forbidden to blow on the ball before serving as many usually do. They also cannot wipe the table covering with their hands. The towel ritual to wipe away sweat, normally allowed every six points, is also restricted. “All contacts with the duplicate partner are banned, but this must be ignored, it is the same for everyone”, tempers Simon Gauzy, the French number 1.