August 18, 2015

Table Tennis Boosting and Why Cheating is Rampant in Our Sport

Here's an article by Coach Jon Gustavason about the problems with boosting (and perhaps speed gluing) in table tennis. He wrote, "It also appeared that at least some of the players were using boosters or speed glue on their rackets. There is absolutely no way of knowing how much was taking place, since there was no attempt to test rackets and — even if there had been — current testing methods can’t detect every possible way that table tennis rubbers can be altered."

Next to the problems with hidden serves, this is the most abused rule in table tennis at the higher levels. The rules state, "The racket covering shall be used without any physical, chemical or other treatment." This makes both speed glue and boosting illegal. 

Boosting is the problem, not speed gluing. Boosting on a tensor sponge gives nearly the same effect but is essentially undetectable, and unlike speed glue, has little health risks. I'd be surprised if any but a tiny minority still speed glue. First, if they did, you can hear the unique sound it makes, and we'd know. Second, it's the top players who are most likely to look for such enhancements, and they know that their racket likely would be tested at the biggest tournaments, and so they wouldn't be able to speed glue at the tournaments that are likely most important for them. Third, and probably most important, I'm told that speed glue doesn't really work well with modern tensor sponges, which just about every top player uses. So what's the point? A tensored sponge that's boosted gives the effect of speed glue without being detectable. (Also, where would they get the speed glue? It's no longer being produced by manufacturers. They'd have to go back to the old bicycle glues used in the 1970s, which aren't as effective as the ones produced later for table tennis.)

Others have protested about the boosting problem. Here's an article from Tabletennista, "Jun Mizutani Boycotts ITTF For His Battle Against Illegal Boosters." (Mizutani is world #6.) It's a worldwide problem.

So it is boosting that is the problem. (Most estimates are that it increases spin and speed about 10%.) I'm not going to name names, but it's pretty much common knowledge that nearly every top player boosts. Not all - there are a few who simply won't do it because it's illegal. For example, Samson Dubina has gotten involved in this issue as he's a top U.S. player who is regularly handicapped because he won't "cheat," and so he doesn't boost, while most of his opponents likely do. When he complained to an official while I listened, the official simply encouraged him to boost himself, since others were doing so. Yes, as Samson can verify, the referee/umpire told him to cheat. The official also argued that few others are complaining – but that's because nearly all of the players are boosting, so of course they aren't complaining! (There's also a top player at my club who faces this same dilemma, as he refuses to boost since it's cheating – but he's getting tempted. "Come to the dark side, we have cookies and booster!")

It's somewhat similar to the problem with steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in sports. They weren't legal, but large number of players used them for decades despite the fact that they were both risking their health and their reputations by cheating. With boosting, there is little danger of either, and so it's pretty much commonplace. I've watched players routinely boost for years; many probably don't even know it's illegal. (Unlike speed glue, which is done just before playing, boosting is done well before you play, and lasts much longer.) 

I'm sure some are wondering just what boosting is. Sorry, I'm not going to tell you. I'm sure with a little research you can find it on your own. When/if it becomes legal (or essentially legal, as explained in #3 below), I'll post about it. 

So how can we solve this problem? I've already tried to solve it, but met up with bureaucratic roadblocks. Just like steroids before, many of the current generation of officials simply don't take the problem seriously - it's out of sight, out of mind thinking, plus they don't want the hassle of dealing with a mostly invisible problem - even though they are really hurting players who won't "cheat."

Let's look at this logically. I see three possibilities. 

  1. Ignore the problem, allow rampant cheating, and handicap those who won't cheat. Sorry, this isn't acceptable to me. 
  2. Spend extremely large sums of money on extremely sensitive equipment that'll detect boosting. (It would probably have to be developed for this express purpose.) Unfortunately, this just isn't affordable and so isn't feasible.
  3. Change the rules (or to resolve the problem in the U.S., just the USATT Tournament Guide) to specify that any racket that passes the racket testing procedure shall be deemed legal for that tournament. Then boosting becomes normal, and the only change is that the few top players who currently don't boost because it is illegal will no longer be handicapped since their boosted rackets would be declared legal.

Number three seems the only possible solution. Some would argue that they would still be cheating, since they have used a "treatment" on their racket – but any treatment is a matter of degree. Cleaning your rubber with water or racket cleaner is a treatment, but doesn't rise to the level that's considered a treatment. All this does is set the limit for what is considered to have been a treatment.

The rules also state that the serve begins with a "stationary" free hand, which is physically impossible without cooling the hand to absolute zero (about -460F or -270C), and so all serves are illegal – but common sense is applied instead, and the free hand is considered "stationary" if the hand roughly comes to a stop. So if one argues that a boosted racket that passes the racket inspection procedure is still illegal would also have to argue that all serves are illegal. They'd also have to argue that that it's better to close their eyes to the matter and allow rampant cheating (#1) than deal with the problem (#3).

One could respond by saying, "Prove all these players are boosting." Well, that's the problem, isn't it, when we set up an unenforceable rule, where players willing to break the rule get a huge advantage? That's how baseball avoided the steroids issue for years, by not enforcing the anti-steroid rules or testing for it, and then demanding proof that players were abusing the rule by using steroids. The difference is that they were able to put into place steroid testing procedures; we can't realistically put into place boosting testing procedures.

So I proposed #3 to a USATT official – the same one mentioned above, a major one in USATT - who I thought would back it, but he instead argued that it would mean making cheating legal, and offered no other option other than to continue to close our eyes to the actual cheating and unfairness that is going on. (I really, really hope he'll reconsider.) And so we're back at square one. At some point I plan to propose #3 to the entire USATT Rules Committee. Or perhaps they'll take independent action on their own or after reading this. (As a member of the USATT board, I could simply make a motion, but it would immediately be referred to the USATT Rules Committee, so I might as well start there. If that doesn't work, then I'd have to go to the ITTF Rules Committee. There must be someone out there who wants to solve problems!)

The amazing thing is there are many players out there who illegally hide their serves and illegally boost, and are proud of winning when they beat a player who doesn't do either.

I don't really object to a player doing these things if the opponent is doing them – and since nearly every opponent is boosting, I don't really object to players boosting. I object to those in charge of the rules not addressing the problem. Let's resolve this issue, okay?

ADDENDUM (added next day)

Here's a simple solution to the problem for USATT. All we have to do is change the USATT Tournament Guide. Under Referee Responsibilities, it says:

5.h. Determines the legality of clothing and equipment. The USATT Dress Code and the red/black racket rule must be consistently enforced at all tournaments

If this were changed to the following, I think it would solve the problem. I’ve only added the last sentence, which I've bolded. 

5.h. Determines the legality of clothing and equipment. The USATT Dress Code and the red/black racket rule must be consistently enforced at all tournaments. Any racket that passes the racket testing procedure would be considered legal for that tournament. 

Coaching on Monday

Meanwhile, on Monday we had Day One of Week Ten of our Eleven Weeks of Camps at MDTTC. We have a number of players who have come to all or nearly all of our camps, as well as the usual new ones. It's been a long summer, and we have another nine days of camp (four this week, five next week), and it's going to be a shock when it's all over and they go back to school, and I go back to normal coaching hours. (As well as going back to work on the various USATT initiatives I've started since I was elected to the USATT Board earlier this year.) 

Yesterday's highlights:

  • When I started playing in 1976 I had problems with jerky strokes. I worked with a kid who probably hit just like me back then. We spent much of the day smoothing out his forehand. 
  • One kid really likes serving fast serves. He had two sessions where he just served fast, aiming at my Gatorade bottle as a target. I may show him video of the world's fastest serve.
  • For the second time I felt a strain in my arm while demonstrating a smash for a student. I'm still wearing the arm brace to help protect the arm, but I do need to remember to warm up before demoing a smash.
  • During breaks I often watch forlornly as six or more kids play games on my computer. I never get to use it anymore!!! As I've explained to the other coaches, if I take it back to check email or write, I make six people unhappy to make one (me) happy. If I let them use it, six people are happy and only one is unhappy. Dang it, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
  • We had the usual trip to 7-11 during the two-hour lunch break. The store manager gave us two free Slurpees. I took them back to the club with a huge number of straws. If you've never seen five kids with five straws all slurping from a single Slurpee, you haven't seen anything.

Ask the Coach Show

Episode #167 (22:34) - Antispin (and other segments).

Butterfly Easy Ball Review

Here's the video (3:35) from Table Tennis Daily. I'm relieved at the positive review as my club and I are both sponsored by Butterfly, and we've been anxiously awaiting the coming of the new plastic training balls.

ITTF Stars Award

Here's the ITTF press release. It will be held on Dec. 9 in Lisbon, Portugal.

European Stars Sweep at 2015 Hyson Chicago Open

Here's the article by Barbara Wei.

Sweden's Rocky Balboa

Here's the interview with Swedish rising junior star Hampus Soderlund, by Matt Hetherington.

Ten Reasons to Play Table Tennis

Part 1 and Part 2 (from Pong Universe).

Fang Bo vs. Timo Boll

Here's the video (4:11) with highlights of their match in the Chinese Super League. Fang puts on a show!!!

The Autobiography of a Ping Pong Ball: My Life with ADHD

Here's a new book on "table tennis" – except it's not about table tennis, it's about someone with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. (I've coached a number of players with ADHD – let's just say you have to be patient.)

Snoopy Wants to Play Table Tennis

Here's the cartoon! And here are two pictures of him playing: photo1 (with Woodstock) and photo2.

Green Ping-Pong Creature

Here it is - whatever it is! Any suggestions for a caption?

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