Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Working in Paris

Midway through the tournament someone asked me, "Are you having fun?"

Knowing that i have a bad habit of being a little too honest, i had to pause for a few seconds before answering.

"It's great to see all these top players and coaches in one place," i replied.

I think most would agree that the Worlds is second in prestige only to the Olympics. The Olympics is a larger event in overall scope and size, but that's a 26-sport event.

The Worlds is a single-sport event with over 800 athletes involved. In contrast, most World Tour events limit the entry count to about 200 (depending on the tier). A tournament like the forthcoming US Open might have almost 1000 players, but i don't think all of those players will expect two umpires at each match, or meal service throughout the tournament, or over 10,000 screaming fans.

Yes, it's a big production and an important tournament, and i was there working as an umpire. You can read my official report on the USATT web site:

An indulgence. I hadn't had langoustines in years.
Paris was pretty much the same as i remembered from the last time i'd been there; it's still beautiful, and there are still too many smokers. They still like sitting at cafes theater-style with the sidewalk and street as their theater. But there were subtle differences: The French people spoke a little more English than before; there was less dog poop on the sidewalks; and there was slightly more franchise fast food than before. A more obvious change was the popular Velib bike sharing system. 

I'm told that the Worlds in Paris is a little different from the Worlds in other years and locations. (With this being my first worlds i can't use personal experience to compare.) People around the world want to visit Paris, so the player and spectator counts are higher than average. This is good news for everyone who isn't working at the tournament; more people means more work. But there is pleasure in being a part of making an event like this happen, and i believe almost everyone was happy to be there. Myself included, along with about 30 fellow USATT members (that i know of) who were on hand in one function or another.
Players patiently waiting for match time
 One thing that impressed me about the organizers was the calmness. When the bus driver was late, he didn't panic and start running down pedestrians. When the arena was being set up with a hundred things on the to-do list, the crew methodically went down the list and did things one at a time. It was as if they (the numerous volunteers) did this for a living; they worked like professionals.

I've been asked several times: How do you become an umpire at the World Championships?
1. Become an International Umpire. This will take a few years or a few dozen years, depending on a variety of circumstances.
2. Apply through your national association. Each association can submit up to two umpire applications to the ITTF. Being a good umpire and being an active umpire will probably help your chances of being submitted by your association.
3. Be selected by the ITTF. You would have to ask the URC (Umpires' and Referees' Committee) what the selection process is.
4. Complete the registration process, get the uniform cleaned, review the rule books, pay the fees, travel to the tournament, etc.

The process is a little different if the Worlds takes place in your home country. About 80 National Umpires from France worked the first two days of the competition. I was told that it typically takes over 10 years for someone to become a National Umpire in France.

The follow up question is usually: How much were you paid?
1. During the tournament, a hotel room (shared with another official) was provided, plus breakfast at the hotel, and lunch and dinner in the cafeteria with the athletes and other staff. Bus from airport to hotel and hotel to playing hall were also taken care of.
2. USATT paid a flat $750 of my plane ticket, independent of how much it actually cost me. The cheapest plane ticket i found for the tournament dates would have been $1500, but i saw that i could cut it down to $1100 if i arrived three days earlier. A cheap hotel would cost me $320 for three nights, so either way i was going to take a net loss of about $750. I opted to travel early and hang out for a few days.
3. Umpires were given $200 (20 euros per day) to handle other expenses.
Oeuf en gelée au jambon (egg and ham in aspic jelly) and pâté -
typical cafeteria food for an athlete?

So in total i was "paid" negative $550. Fellow US umpire Kenny Tien probably paid more. Why a subset of table tennis enthusiasts would repeatedly pay money (and use vacation days from their day jobs) to work at tournaments belongs in another article. But obviously much of the compensation is intangible.

A slightly less frequent question is: What is it like to umpire at the Worlds Championships?

It's different for everyone; i can only speak for myself and say that it's pressure. It's not easy, there's no relaxation, and i can't say i'm enjoying a match despite being closer to the play than any spectator. If a player serves into the net, he'll be kicking himself and he might get a tongue lashing from his coach. But if the umpire makes a simple mistake like that, it's a big problem; it doesn't matter if he or she was perfect up until that point. Even when the umpire does everything right, the players, crowd, and commentators may claim otherwise. An umpire can never win the match, but he can, in a sense, lose. And when my day is over i don't think about doing something touristy or having a drink; it's back to the hotel for me, briefly catching up on other table tennis things i'm working on, and bed. Again, i can only speak for myself; many umpires went out when they had breaks, but those people are tougher than i am.
Samsonov and Chen Weixing - someone brought their own thickness tester
Some umpires have other duties to attend to. There were 70 ITTF meetings at the Worlds, and some umpires are national delegates, committee members, presenters of proposals, etc. As a new member of the equipment committee, i had to fit in meetings along with my umpiring duties.

There was similar contrast among players. Some were very serious and focused on table tennis, even going to the practice area long after they were knocked out of the tournament. Meanwhile, others were taking in the whole Paris Worlds experience as much as they could.

For example, on the second day of the tournament there were 38 women's singles qualification matches scheduled at 8:30am, but i didn't see 76 players with their practice partners and coaches in the playing hall at 7:00am getting ready. Not even half that. But i was pleased to see Team USA there, bright and early and, incredibly, smiling.

Ariel and Erica, the first ones in the hall at 7:00am

The preparation that goes on before a match is extensive, and i'm not talking about the practice that was done at home. The serious players work up a serious sweat long before their match starts. Players are expected to check in for their match 30 minutes ahead of time and give their rackets to the umpires at that time. I'm trying to imagine asking US players to do this at the US Open - is it even possible? But the professional players handle it professionally, handing over their rackets and working it into their pre-match routine. And when their match is delayed and they haven't touched their primary racket for an hour or more, what do they do? They go out to the table when it's time to play, and perform the way they're expected to.

A photographer's wooden stool is the best seat in the house
The European fans - largely French and German - were slightly disappointed when their hometown heroes didn't make it to the finals. I suspect some Chinese fans were secretly disappointed about that too.

Should the women be offended?
Even the semifinals were monopolized by Asian countries, though there was some variety with North Korea and Taiwan taking home doubles trophies. But the hordes of spectators were still happy. You could hear the stampede of pre-teen autograph seekers whenever a member of the Chinese team decided to take a break and attempt to disappear in the cheap seats. "Was that Ma Long?" asks a middle-aged bystander. "No, Fang Bo" replies the French youth, with a look of "DUH!" The French federation is obviously developing a new generation of professional players with great potential. But alongside that, they're also developing new generations of serious table tennis fans, who will grow up with the sport and contribute to it for years and years.

Of course i was happy to be there. It was the World Championships! It was Paris! But like a typical American, of course i was happy to return home to the States. Then i realized that the America's Team Championships tournament was next weekend and i hadn't started preparing for it. And i knew that instead of having four times as many umpires as tables (the standard staffing requirement), i would have four times as many tables as umpires. So it goes.