Wilfried Lemke

Ping-pong for paz, paix, ba dame

There are many versions of the story of the starfish on the beach. This is the one that over the past 15 or so years has guided the remarkable work of the International Table Tennis Federation as it has grown to become a powerful force for one-on-one change and, as well, a vehicle for the notion that sport can help promote peace in even the farthest reaches of our world:

A storm washes up thousands upon thousands of starfish on the sand. An older man walking along the shore notices a boy who seems to be dancing. The gentleman comes close and sees the boy is not dancing but throwing starfish, one by one, back into the sea.

Glenn Tepper running a table tennis clinic in Kiribati in xxxx. In the foreground is 4-year-old xxx // photo courtesy Glenn Tepper

“Why are you doing that?” the older man asks. “You can’t save them all. You can’t possibly make a difference!”

At that, the boy bends down and throws a starfish into the water. And then another. And yet another.

He says: “Saved that one. And that one. And that one.”

Earlier this month, at its annual general meeting, which this year was held in Tokyo, the ITTF brought both Mali, in Africa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands on board as national associations. Those two lifted the total of member federations on the ITTF roster to 220, tying the international volleyball federation, FIVB, for most in the world.

Afghanistan, for instance, became a member in 2005; Papua New Guinea in 2009; Chad in 2012.

Just for comparison: track and field’s global federation, the IAAF, has 212 member federations.

Only five outliers have a national Olympic committee — for context, again, there are 204 formally recognized NOCs — but are not yet recognized as an ITTF national association. Four are African: Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome & Principe and Eritrea. The fifth: Bahamas.

The ITTF goal is to have all five in the fold by the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.

To show you the reach of table tennis:

The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu sent five athletes to the 2012 London Games. Two of the five played table tennis.

Until 2012, the Middle Eastern state of Qatar had never before sent women to the Summer Games. It sent four women to London. One was a 17-year-old table tennis player, Aia Mohamed.

The ITTF story is all the more notable because table tennis — in the aftermath of 1970s ping-pong diplomacy — became an Olympic sport only in 1988, at the Seoul Summer Games.

It wasn’t until 1999 that the ITTF’s formal development program got underway. By then, the ITTF had 180 members. The program was launched with $60,000 — $30,000 from the federation itself and $30,000 from the Oceania confederation of Olympic committees.

Now it has grown, all in, to nearly $2 million annually.

At the beginning, the program had a “staff” of one.

Now it has a full-time staff of 10, part-time of 100, serving over 100 nations -- all of it part of the ultimate goal, according to ITTF chief executive Judit Farago, of table tennis being recognized as a top-five sport in the Olympic movement.

To be obvious:

Soccer is the easiest game to organize, because all you need, really, is a ball. Then come basketball and volleyball, because you need a ball and a net. Then table tennis, because you need the rackets, a ball, a net (or a board or even boxes); and then anything, literally almost anything, can serve as the table, including a door, a table (to be even more obvious), a sheet of marine plywood (widely available throughout the world), school desks pushed together, whatever.

In comparison to the other sports, however, table tennis has an incredibly enviable upside. It doesn’t take up much room. It can be played indoors or out. And it doesn’t take a dedicated space; the “table” can be packed or folded up and put away. Thus it is, practically speaking, a complete winner.

Too often, the administration of sport is derided as (mostly) men in suits. In this instance, some forward-thinking suits recognized the elegance inherent in table tennis. Over the years, they have included:

Monaco-based Peace and Sport, directed by Joel Bouzou; the German table tennis federation, and in particular its president, Thomas Weikhart, and secretary general, Matthias Vatheuer; Butterfly, the Japanese table tennis company founded by Hikosuke Tamasu, who as a young soldier in 1945 was but two kilometers away when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; and the Foundation for Global Sports Development.

So, too, the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace, headed by its special adviser, Wilfried Lemke.

In particular, the ITTF project has been guided by the vision of Adham Sharara, its president since 1999, and his “P4” philosophy for the federation— popularity, participation, profit, planning — now expanded in recent years to a fifth p, promotion.

Mostly, however, the project has been implemented from the start — and is even now overseen — by Glenn Tepper, an Australian, a former school teacher, national team player and coach whose passport has many, many pages. He’s at nearly 100 countries, most of them developing nations.

Glenn Tepper, now ITTF deputy CEO, who in 1999 was the one-man "staff" of what would become its worldwide developmental program // photo courtesy Glenn Tepper

It might sound romantic beyond imagination to be doing a table tennis course in Bora Bora, in French Polynesia. This was not, however, a honeymoon. Tepper slept in a hammock on a balcony. The mosquitoes were ferocious.

In the early years, there was a lot sleeping in hammocks. Or open-walled huts. Or cement floors. He rode a lot of local buses. He hitchhiked. He walked, a lot.

Tepper was that staff of one, and that $60,000 had to go a long way.

The payoff was in breaking down barriers. In providing something not just different but potentially better — to help even one kid see that a bigger world was out there. In maybe offering a glimmer of hope.

Kiribati is a collection of 33 islands in the central tropical Pacific. Its permanent population is now about 103,000. It was one of the first places Tepper went on this mission. He was struck while there how many people lived in thatched huts — no walls — on platforms raised above the sea and how many had their entire worldly belongings in a single box in one corner of the hut. Most people he encountered lived on a subsistence diet of tuna and tarot. They also thought — and maybe they were right, he said — that they were rich beyond words.

In Kiribati // photo courtesy Glenn Tepper

While in Kiribati, a picture was taken of Tepper running a clinic; in the foreground is a 4-year-old boy. About a dozen years later, that boy, Karirake Tetabo, would go on to represent Team Oceania at the ITTF Global Cadet Challenge.

In a story two years ago Tetabo is quoted as saying, “My aim is to become firstly Pacific Games champion and later become one of the best in Oceania and, who knows, maybe the world?”

One of the first collaborative projects, it turned out, would be in 2003 in rural Egypt, Tepper and others working with village leaders in a bid to change perceptions of girls who according to tradition were being married off in their early teens and believed at risk for ritual circumcision.

One such leader, in a short ITTF video, calls the project an “excellent initiative” and gives thanks to God, saying it “increased activities” in the village community center, “especially for young women.”

In Egypt in 2003 // photo courtesy Glenn Tepper

Over the last Olympic cycle, 2009-12, ITTF organized 492 courses; 98 were done in accord with the International Olympic Committee’s Solidarity initiative; around the world, these 492 courses reached 24,000 people, 38 percent of whom — up from 33 percent in the previous four-year cycle — were women.

Of those 492, 206 — or 42 percent — included education about Para Table Tennis. That was up from 14 percent in the 2004-08 cycle.

In 2009, a notable ITTF initiative included “Ping Pong Paz.” It focused on children from displaced families living in slums in three cities in Colombia — 600 kids.

In Colombia in 2009 // photo courtesy Glenn Tepper

In 2010, it was halfway across the world, in Dili, East Timor, for “Ping Pong Ba Dame,” with the Swedish champion Peter Karlsson, a relentless promoter of table tennis as an agent for good.

In Dili, Jose de Jesus, president of the local Action for Change Foundation, after recounting the civil war there four years before, asserted that the program would promote  “tolerance, discipline, morals and respect for each other.”

In 2011, the ITTF launched one of its most ambitious projects, “Ping Pong Paix,” reaching across borders in central Africa, two villages in Burundi, two across the line in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The area had been marked for some time by conflict and, indeed, outright skirmishing.

Again, Karlsson was on hand.

“The kids,” Tepper said, “found out they were exactly the same. They weren’t so different. They could have fun and become friends.”

Ultimately, the ITTF would take kids from each village to the 2012 world championships in Germany. Needless to say, these kids had not been on airplanes before. They didn’t have passports. Some didn’t even have shoes. It all got figured out.

At those championships, the kids watched the action, mingled with the sport’s stars, got all wide-eyed. They also presented Sharara with pictures they had drawn from their villages. Tepper said, “There were a lot of people with tears in their eyes who are normally tough customers.”

There’s a video that, in part, features one of the kids at those championships.

Billy Quentin Nkingi, then 12 years old, looks into the camera and, speaking in French, says, “Hello, I am Billy. I am from Burundi. I am happy to be here. This is the first time I have been to such an occasion. I am here for peace.”


Here's one way to be more relevant

All six International Olympic Committee presidential candidates have, to varying degrees, called on the organization to play a bigger role in the world. In a word, to be more -- relevant. Each has stressed the key Olympic values: friendship, excellence, respect.

Now comes Friday's episode in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a television station and the National Transportation Safety Board have had to apologize for their roles in the broadcast of fake, racially insensitive names of the pilots flying Asiana Flight 214. A third person died Friday in connection with crash and more than 180 were hurt when the Boeing 777 slammed last Saturday into a seawall and then skidded down the runway at San Francisco International Airport.

In a segment that aired at noon Friday, station KTVU identified the pilots as "Ho Lee Fuk," "Wi Tu Low," "Sum Ting Wong" and "Bang Ding Ow."

In a written explanation, the station later said it "never read the names out loud, phonetically sounding them out," and on air, KTVU anchor Frank Somerville added, "There's just no other way to say it -- we made a mistake … we offer our sincerest apology."  The NTSB, meanwhile, said a summer intern confirmed the "names" to KTVU when a station reporter called with an inquiry; it added its apology as well.

Asiana has identified the pilot and co-pilot as Lee Kang Kook and Lee Jung Min.

What does this have to do with the Olympics?

The smart candidate would immediately see the opportunity for an Olympic-themed dialogue on advancing cultural understanding and tolerance -- and the right person to foster it is already one of the key members of the so-called Olympic family, Korean Air chairman Yang Ho Cho, who as it happens is one of the world's foremost experts in one of the hardest things to both define and put into practice, the notion of enterprise culture.

Among the six presidential candidates, for instance, Singapore's Ser Miang Ng has repeatedly called for inclusive dialogue while stressing the notion of being a "universal, unifying" leader as the IOC faces "new realities and opportunities." Another, C.K. Wu of Chinese Taipei, the president of the international boxing federation, has highlighted the value of education in schools worldwide to showcase the Olympic values. Ukraine's Sergei Bubka, in his wide-ranging 28-page manifesto, says the time is now for the IOC to take the "lead role" in ensuring the movement becomes "even more relevant."

Almost without exception, reports last week about the crash of Asiana 214 -- apparently aiming to build in background -- sought to frame the crash as a wider indictment of South Korean aviation. Time and again, there were references to fatal crashes in the 1980s and to the crash of Korean Air flight 801 in Guam in 1997, which killed 228 passengers and crew.

As readers of Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 best-selling book "Outliers" know well, Cho effected a massive cultural change at Korean Air after the Guam crash. Junior pilots were encouraged to speak up to their seniors, to whom they previously might have shown considerable deference, even if the senior pilot might well be on course for disaster. All pilots had to learn to speak English, the language of the global control tower, better.

Cho tends to run on the quiet side. Even so, he is a first-rate thought leader.

For many years now, Korean Air's record has been spotless. Of course, every day is a new day. An accident can happen at any time.

Even so, again and for emphasis, Korean Air's record has not been accident-free, it has been an industry leader.

In 2006, for instance, as the Wall Street Journal noted recently, the International Air Transport Assn., a trade group for the world's major airlines, certified that Korean Air had achieved the "highest standards and best practices for safety."

At the same time, Korean Air has also become a major player in other areas of interest. The company recently announced plans to construct a 73-story, $1-billion tower in downtown Los Angeles, for example, that would be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River and, as the LA Times noted, a "symbol of South Korea's status as an up-and-coming economic powerhouse."

Just blocks from Staples Center, the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings, the building would further enhance the ongoing re-development of downtown LA. At 1,100 feet, the tower would be one of the tallest in the United States -- taller even than the Chrysler Building in New York.

Two years ago, Cho led Pyeongchang's bid for the 2018 Winter Games.

The 2018 bid followed narrow Korean losses for 2014 and 2010.

With Cho directing, the 2018 bid fashioned a hugely winning culture.

Of course, he did not do it alone. The prior bids were ever-so-close, led by the-then provincial governor, J.S. Kim. The Korean Olympic Committee's leadership, with Y.S. Park, proved considerable as well.

Backstage, perhaps, there might have been, well, let's say "discussions" among the various bid factions, which included the various levels of government, corporate supporters including Samsung and the KOC. When it came to showtime, however, Cho understood that there had to be one person indisputably in front, that everyone had to be all smiles, that there had to be way more women involved and that everyone had to speak English, a radical change from the 2014 and 2010 bids.

Behind probably the best Olympic bid tagline ever, "new horizons,"  Pyeongchang rolled to a massive victory over Munich and Annecy, with a whopping 63 votes, the highest total ever recorded for a first-round win.

Last week at the extraordinary session in Lausanne, Switzerland, the IOC reached out for nine new members. Only one was Asian, Mikaela Maria Antonia Cojuangco-Jaworski of the Philippines.

The new president -- whoever he is -- could do the institution a lot of good by looking anew at Cho's credentials.

In the meantime, in the aftermath of Pyeongchang's victory, they launched an initiative in Seoul called the International Sport Cooperation conference. Recent attendees have included Ng; Wu; Rio 2016 coordination commission chairwoman and the IOC member from Morocco, Nawal el-Moutawakel; and Wilfried Lemke, the United Nations' special advisor on sport for development and peace.

The ISC series is designed to be relevant and hugely topical. Here's a suggestion for the next conference: the importance in the real world of friendship, excellence, respect, tolerance, diversity and enterprise culture and the IOC's lead role in moving all of that forward.


[Disclaimer: Korean Air advertises on this website. I have had no contact with anyone from the company in writing this column.]