Thursday, February 15, 2024

You're Tearing Me Apart

The 2024 World Championships began today in Busan. I was supposed to go to the 2020 edition of this tournament, but some weird disease showed up and caused the event to be cancelled. It's great that South Korea will finally get to host the Worlds.

Then on February 26th and 27th will be meetings of the ITTF Council and the AGM, where elected officials will consider making a few minor changes to the rules. They will also consider a couple major changes: Council Proposition IC-14 and AGM Proposition A-05, both of which I believe will be detrimental to the sport if they are approved. The first one recreates the environment for one of the messiest situations the sport has ever seen. The story starts with the long time Korean coach . . .

At the 1995 World Championships, the Korea Republic's Kim Taek Soo had results that were decidedly mixed.

I wasn't there, but you can read news reports about it. In the team semifinal against China, Kim beat Ma Wenge but lost to Wang Tao. China won the team contest 3-2, and would proceed to win the team final against Sweden.

Then in the singles competition, Kim Taek Soo faced Wang Tao again, in perhaps the most controversial World Championships match in the last 70 years.

The official ITTF match results show Wang Tao as the winner, and the scores were 21-18, 21-16, 21-18. But not stated is that Kim Taek Soo was the player who got 21 in each game, not Wang Tao.

Kim Taek Soo would like a moment

You can watch highlights of the match on YouTube. Speed glue, orange 38mm celluloid ball, hidden serves. Kim ran around like crazy and you can clearly see that he won the match on the court. So what happened?

In 1995, racket testing was expensive and slow, and the testing was only done after the match. Kim's racket was found to be illegal, with a solvent emission level higher than permitted, and so he was disqualified. He won the match on the court, but lost in the laboratory.

It is very rare for this to happen today. Players submit their rackets in advance, and racket testing only takes a few minutes. If a racket is found to be illegal, the player can simply play with a different, legal racket. The only time a racket is tested after a match is if the player has really screwed up and showed up late for their match. This doesn't happen in major tournaments.

If Kim Taek Soo had been given the opportunity to use a legal racket, he might still have won the match and gone on to win the tournament. Speed glue doesn't give you better footwork.

Wang Tao, both the winner and the loser

If Wang Tao had been given the opportunity to play against Kim using a legal racket, he might have become the men's singles champion that year. After all, he was the highest ranked Chinese player, and the highest ranked player left in the tournament. He automatically advanced to the semifinal due to Kim's disqualification, but I suspect he didn't permit himself to become a world champion with an asterisk. "If they tell me to play, I will play but in my heart I know I have already lost." Wang Tao lost the semifinal to his teammate Liu Guoliang in what has been described as an exhibition match.

There was a third loser in all of this: table tennis. Other sports have newsworthy disqualifications for reasons like steroids, unsportsmanlike conduct, clandestine signaling devices, etc. Using glue that's too aromatic? What kind of sport is this?

I don't care to judge what Kim did or didn't do. My concern is with the system, and the pre-match racket testing protocol we have today is superior because from a competition perspective, a post-match disqualification is a major, almost catastrophic problem. If a player has an illegal racket, tell him before the match so he can play with a legal racket. The players played (and the spectators watched) a match that didn't count. Imagine if everyone were told one hour after the Super Bowl that the losers are actually the winners. The sports books would have to institute a policy where they don't pay out pending the post-match litigation.

Unfortunately we might be going back in time. On February 26, the ITTF Council will meet and vote on Proposition IC-14, which would introduce a new racket testing method and protocol. This testing would involve disassembling the racket and examining the discrete blade and racket coverings - after the match. So perhaps we will see the Kim Taek Soo - Wang Tao situation again in an upcoming World Championships or Olympics.

You can read the details in the book of propositions, pages 20-22 and 162-178.

I was a member of the ITTF Equipment Committee for ten years, being responsible for racket coverings, and sharing responsibility for racket control. I took the photos and wrote a lot of the text in the racket control procedures (you can blame me for writing "color" rather than "colour"). I'm familiar with the techniques players use to manipulate their rackets, and a few more that they could use but haven't discovered yet. In 2023 I decided not to stand for another term in the committee.

I was still a member of the committee when they started looking into taking rackets apart. I believe the intentions are good, but throughout the development process I continued to voice my opposition while simultaneously giving them advice. They proceeded onward, and all I can do now is write about it and hope that the ITTF Council votes against the proposition.

It's the racket testers' job to pursue the players. Some players will find a new way to get an advantage, and if it's an illegal advantage, the racket testers need to find it and enforce the rules. With rubber, players look for two main advantages: racket coverings that are as thick as possible (the limit is 4.0mm), and racket coverings with higher elasticity, typically boosted with softeners.

We don't want honest players to have an equipment disadvantage, so we should do what we can to detect and prevent illegal rackets. But this proposed changed to racket control doesn't go about it the right way.

The new racket control procedure describes three things for a tester to look for on the blade of a disassembled racket. One of them is "lacquer near the handle". But having lacquer or any other material near the handle is not illegal. My personal racket has a piece of wood along the bottom edge of the rubber, not for cheating purposes, but for hand support. No player should be penalized for having extra material on the handle.

Does this chunk of wood make my racket illegal?
The other two things to check are related to a "sanded blade" - removing a strip of material to try to fake out the thickness testing device. It is true; there are players who employ these techniques to try to defeat the system. But this kind of manipulation can be detected without racket disassembly. These rackets don't meet the existing flatness requirement, and this defect can be measured without disassembling the racket. The ITTF just needs to adopt a better flatness gauge (which should be quite easy to do) and train people how to measure this. I've disqualified many rackets for this, but maybe I'm the only one.

If you sand a hollow out of your blade, I'll catch you

You don't need to dismantle the racket to measure this
The new procedure also describes measuring the thickness of the racket covering after disassembly. In principle I have no objection to this, but there are important details missing, which I will not write about here because I don't want to give more information to potential cheaters.

Here's my biggest problem with this whole thing: It does nothing to deter or detect boosting. Players will have to go through the ordeal of post-match testing and having their rackets disassembled, and yet there is no test of elasticity or chemical composition to see if the racket covering has been boosted.

It is ironic that this whole thing started as the "boostering" project. If a test for boosters were included, I might be in favor of racket disassembly. As is, the player (and racket tester) will go through all this and the only useful thing you'll learn is whether the rubber is too thick or not. Sure, it's illegal if rubber is too thick, but is it worth all of this trouble when the thickness of the rubber can already be seen with a loupe?

If this proposition passes, I expect the following:

  • Very few tournaments will have racket disassembly, so nothing changes for most tournaments.
  • In major tournaments, players will have their rackets dismantled post-match. We could have another Kim Taek Soo vs Wang Tao situation, and it will only happen at a big tournament.
  • In describing things for racket testers to look for, the ITTF has now published a set of techniques that players can use to defeat the standard rubber thickness device. Players who had no intention of sanding their blades can now learn what pros do, so more will do it and the situation will become worse.
  • There will be zero reduction in boosting. Players who are concerned about their boosted rubber being too thick will simply start with thinner rubber. The advantage gained by boosting is much greater than the advantage of having a thicker unboosted rubber.

If you know someone who has a vote, or know someone who knows someone who has a vote, I hope you will encourage them to oppose Proposition IC-14.

The other proposition surprised me. The equipment committee and rules committee have made a proposition that will increase the rubber thickness limit.

In summary: When a racket is tested today, rubber with sponge needs to measure less than 4.05mm thick, and rubber without sponge needs to measure less than 2.05mm. The aforementioned Proposition IC-14, combined with Proposition A-05 for the AGM, has the net effect of increasing the limits to 4.10mm and 2.10mm respectively.

Thicker rubber is faster rubber. The ITTF should not be taking action that directly leads to faster rubber. This would be counterproductive to work that's been done over the last few decades:

  • In the 1990s, table tennis started the process of eliminating speed glue. This had the side effect of slowing down the game a bit.
  • In 2000, table tennis went through a more deliberate process of slowing down the game by increasing the ball size from 38mm to 40mm. It was complicated and a bit of an ordeal, but the sport survived and is better for it.
  • Then in the 2010s the ball size increased a tiny bit more with the move to non-celluloid plastics.
That brings us to the sport we have today. From an aesthetic point of view, rallies are far superior to how it was in the past. But each time things changed, professional players were affected. A larger ball, or thicker rubber, or any other change will benefit some players and hurt others. There is an adjustment period for everyone. We can't make changes lightly.

After all of the changes that were made to slow things down, it doesn't make sense to speed things up.

Today's players are faster and stronger than they were ten years ago. Rubber technology continues to advance. If anything, the thickness limit should be reduced to counter these advances. At the professional level, today's play is just as fast as the 38mm speed glued game of the 1990s.

I can say the same about any potential change to the blade rules. People have been talking about blade liberalization, permitting new materials or thicker layers of non-wood fibers. Adding more materials will make the sport faster - you don't see companies marketing new blades or rubber as "New! Improved! 20% slower!" Technology keeps making things faster; the rules should try to counter it, not help accelerate it.

The material advances also hurt the diversity of play styles. I don't think many choppers are excited each time a new attacking blade or rubber is produced. Among world class players, the number of choppers continues to decrease.

I could go deep and argue against the technical reasons in the rationales provided (they are not logical in my opinion), but I don't know if that matters. The rationale for this new proposition doesn't say the intention is to speed up the game, but that would be the end result. I hope someone at the AGM will speak up against it.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024


It's been a while. Almost ten years it seems.

In 2014 I was a fairly active referee, working about 15 tournaments per year.

I was a member of the USATT Board of Directors. It was a good board; people got along, we had healthy arguments, and advancement of the association came first. There was very little politics. We had just hired a new CEO, Gordon Kaye. I finished my four-year term in 2016.

I was also a member of the ITTF Equipment Committee. This took a decent amount of my time. For my first few terms there was not much politics in the committee, but there was a lot of politics in the ITTF as a whole. The sport always came first for me, and perhaps my unwillingness to play politics hindered my effectiveness there.

I was responsible for racket coverings, and in that role helped make a few million dollars for the ITTF. I was also able to put dozens of little things into the rules that improve the sport's integrity today. But I could no longer bear the environment and the drastic emphasis on marketing rather than science and fair play. I left quietly in 2023 after ten years of service, my only reward being personal satisfaction for helping the sport survive. So be it.

Today I'm at the lowest amount of table tennis activity I've had for 20 years. I still officiate at tournaments once in a while, and still serve as competition manager at the NCTTA Championships, but that's it. It's hard to say whether I left the sport, or the sport left me.

But I still keep an eye on things. Sometimes I see things that I think table tennis fans should care about. Maybe I'll write about them.