Table tennis runs the risk of becoming an extinct sport in Scotland unless action is taken. Roddy Mackenzie reports
The Scottish Table Tennis Association (STTA) is increasingly concerned about the drop-off in the number of schoolgirls taking up the sport. Last month's Scottish Schools' Championships at the Bell's sports centre in Perth attracted a disappointing entry, particularly in the girls' events. In some of the age groups only a handful of players entered.
It is a trend the STTA wants to reverse as soon as possible. "We just hope it's a cyclical thing," says Ralph Knowles, secretary of the STTA. "Traditionally, it has been difficult to get girls to play racquet sports at a competitive level, but even in areas where we were traditionally strong, like Dumfries and Drumchapel, the numbers are falling away."
The STTA is worried about where future players will come from. Scotland won a bronze medal in the women's team event at the Commonwealth Championships in 1989 and has produced world-ranked players in the past in Carole Dalrymple and Sarah Hurry. In fact, Dalrymple, from Falkirk, was capped by Scotland at the age of 11 and went on to reach a seventh ranking in the Commonwealth. Hurry, from Bridge of Allan, also had the potential to make a living from the sport but, academically gifted, she chose a more traditional career path. Now it is difficult to get girls up to their level.
"It is not hard to get girls to play at a recreational level, but getting them to play at a more serious level and develop hand-eye co-ordination is another matter. Some of them never get it," says Knowles. "We have even seen a drop in the standards in the boys' game where, although there are a promising number of young players coming through, there is a big gap between Under-14 and Under-18 level."
Linda Powell, press secretary to the STTA, is a member of the Dumfries club and is well aware of the problem. "There just doesn't seem to be the same number of girls wanting to play the game. The local tennis club in Dumfries seems to have the same problem," she points out.
"There are other attractions in the town and the ice rink offers ice-hockey and curling as well as ice-dancing, which seems to attract a lot of young girls because of the glamour involved.
"I also don't think mothers have as much time to take their daughters to a sport like table tennis. It's easier for the mothers to spend n hour doing aerobics than to spend two or three hours at a table tennis club."
The one bright spot in Scotland is Stirling, where Raymond Bond, a sports development officer with Stirling council, has been able to spend time in schools building up the game and there are a number of girls taking it up. The picture is not so bright in other parts of the country.
Knowles believes there are a number of factors involved in the fact that the schools' game is not as strong as in the past. One is that table tennis is not a high-profile sport and does not have enough role-models in Scotland, which does not help young players take an interest in the game. While most of us will have played table tennis at some stage in our lives, it is not a game that gets a lot of television exposure or newspaper column inches in this country.
The sport has never enjoyed decent funding and, to gain more support from Sportscotland, the STTA has been told that it needs to get players into the top 100 in the world. Ralph Knowles believes that is unlikely, given the present situation.
"It's a 'Catch-22' situation. We will not get players in the top 100 unless we have the funds in place to support them," he continues. "There even seems to be a hint that it would be better if we could get a foreign player in, who could qualify to represent Scotland, but that defeats the purpose in my mind.
"The STTA is dedicated to going into schools to bring more players into the game and hopefully we can spot the odd player who can possibly go on to play at a high level but it's a question of resources."
The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) is taking steps to make the game more appealing to the television cameras and, by natural progression, more appealing to young players.
The size of the ball will increase from 38 millimetres up to 40 millimetres for international competition from October and that, it is confidently believed, will help prolong rallies.There are also moves to make all matches the best of five and to score up to 11 instead of 21, so that the crucial point in games is reached earlier.
Yet again the serving is coming under scrutiny, where the ball must be visible to the receiving player, thus making it easier for points to be won on service.
If it all makes the game more user-friendly and accessible to young players, then the STTA will be the first to acknowledge it.