<Note from Greg in January 2020: This article was originally written in 2005. I have left it as originally written, instead of attempting to bring it up to date.>
Today I’d like to raise the table tennis topic of imported players and spend some time discussing the pros and cons of a country importing players to play in their national team at world championships and other important events. Please note that I am just raising issues here, I am not arguing in favour of one side or the other – I’m still not sure whether this is a good thing or not. But it is an issue which I think should be debated at the highest level of the sport, since there are probably a number of local players in the countries around the world who have felt ripped off when an imported player has moved to their country and taken their place in the national team. At any rate, I’m not sure that the current system is the best one we could have.
Since the most common example of this in table tennis is Chinese players moving to another country and then playing on their national team, I’ll work from the assumption that the hypothetical player I am talking about is Chinese and wanting to play for Australia – although it really could be from any country to any country I suppose.
The Current Rules on Imported Players
According to the ITTF Handbook for 2004-2005, there are a number of rules about International Eligibility, but since they are written in that typical lawyerlike doublespeak I think that the only ones that matter are these:
- Rule 3.8.4, ‘A player shall not represent different Associations within a period of 3 years.’
- Rule 3.8.2, ‘A player is eligible to represent an Association only if he is a national of the country in which that Association has jurisdiction,…’
I assume that this means if a Chinese player wants to play for Australia, they need to be a national (a citizen? living in Australia for 3 years? Not really sure about this – what the heck does ‘a national’ actually mean?) for 3 years and then they can legitimately play for Australia.
Points in favour of allowing imported players to play for Australia
- Imported players can help to raise the standard of table tennis in Australia. They presumably have knowledge of more advanced training methods and techniques, the latest tactics, and what it takes to win at the highest level. If this knowledge can be passed on to players in Australia, this can shortcut the time taken to produce local champions.
- By playing for the Australian team, the team should be able to rise in the world rankings and play against better competition, exposing the local players to a standard of play they may not have reached on their own.
- An imported champion can raise the profile of the sport in Australia – just look at the pole vaulters Dmitri Markov and Tatania Grigorieva etc. A higher profile for table tennis in the media means more chances to win advertising dollars and gain new players who have seen the sport on the TV or in the newspapers.
- An imported champion can also attract more government funding – especially in a country like Australia where Olympic funding goes to the sports in which we are likely to win medals.
- Beginning players will have a role model to look up to and try to emulate, and can actually see their role model play the sport live.
- When they are too old to play, the imported player can then become a coach and keep spreading their expertise throughout the sport in Australia.
- The player is probably coming over here to live because he thinks he will have a better life, so why shouldn’t Australia benefit from his experience and abilities?
Points against allowing imported players to play for Australia
- It can be discouragaing for the current generation of top local players, who have trained for years to reach the top of Australian table tennis and gain the chance to compete for Australia. Suddenly their years of sacrifice and hard work is thrown away as an imported player takes their place in the team.
- The imported players don’t always share their knowledge and experience. How can you force someone to share all that he knows with other players that he will be competing with for places in the Australian team? How would you ever know if he is holding something back from the other players?
- You may discourage the local up and coming players from continuing with the sport – what is the point of doing all that training if at any time an imported player can simply walk in and take the place you have worked for – why even bother trying?
- Sometimes the imported player is past their peak – shouldn’t we be allowing our local future champions to compete and gain experience instead of an aging foreigner?
- The richer countries around the world, who have the better lifestyles for the imported player, will probably get the lion’s shares of imports. So the richer countries will continue to improve, while the poorer countries will continue to struggle, as their best players leave to compete for the richer countries.
- It doesn’t work – Australia has been importing female Chinese players for the last twenty years and has it been worth the effort? Are we any higher in the world than we would have been without them?
Other issues involved
- What about the issue of restraint of trade? Can a country restrict a table tennis professional from making a living doing what he does – playing table tennis at the highest level?
- How old do you have to be in order to be considered an import? What if you move to your new country at age 5? Age 10? Age 15? Age 20? Does it make a difference?
- Could we limit the number of imports per team? Maybe 1 per team only? Or only 1 import from each country – ie an Australian team could have only 1 original Chinese, 1 Singaporean, 1 New Zealander etc (why we would want a New Zealander I don’t know, but it could happen! Just joking all you Kiwis out there!)
- Perhaps all imported players could have to be citizens of their adopted countries, but what if one country makes you wait 10 years to be a citizen, while other countries only make you wait 1 year – is this fair?
I’ve got to admit, the jury is still out on this table tennis issue as far as I am concerned. Maybe we will never find an equitable solution to the problem – but at least if we continued to talk about the situation and try to find a fair compromise then things might be better for all concerned.