With the fanfare of the 2012 Olympics now a distant memory, the lasting aim is one of participation and engagement. Its legacy has been widely debated and satirised, and the question of the effect the International Olympic Committee’s travelling circus has on local sports development – or indeed development of any kind – is one that divides opinion wherever in the world its footprint treads.

Like many other arms of the public sector, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been forced by government policy to work under tighter constraints over recent years. This is reflected in the funding available and the reliance on volunteers to ensure the social and public sector contribution to active lifestyles remains in place. This month, a public consultation process was launched by the government, aiming to gather feedback on “what more can be done to use sport to help improve many more lives,” and repeating lines about “the chance to take part” in the same breath as rhetoric reminding us that “public funding is a privilege not a right”.

While the emphasis on participation can have the desired effect of encouraging teamwork, community and all round healthier lifestyles, which in turn can have knock-on benefits including cutting obesity rates, so saving NHS time and resources, cuts to funding via the taxation and National Lottery avenues could also have the adverse effect of strangling the sports outside of the popularly funded Olympic disciplines.

Competitive cycling in this country has gone from strength to strength as steadily increasing funding improves Team GB’s chances of podium finishes, which in turn affords the sport more exposure and attracts more people to take it up, both for sport and commuting. It becomes a virtuous cycle and, in the case of cycling, there are also environmental and congestion benefits. But on the other side of the coin, diminished funding can have the opposite effect of spiralling the less successful sports into a vicious cycle of low world rankings, leading to empty coffers and less uptake for potential new players, whether in local leagues or further up the ability ladder. Success in sport, be it national or individual, becomes a chicken and egg scenario where funding is concerned. Whether it’s encouraging newcomers to start at the grassroots level or performing inside 50 thousand-seater stadiums, you’re not going to see a sport thrive if its facilities and facilitators aren’t being supported.

Table tennis is one of the sports languishing in the distance, already losing momentum for years with the cumulative effect of funding budgets the size of an afterthought. By December of the London Olympics year, the English Table Tennis Association (ETTA) was placed on a one-year restricted funding arrangement by Sport England, who cited issues with the table tennis governing body’s ability to lead and influence the sport. Effectively, this meant their previous budget of £1.2m was slashed to nothing. Since then, the ETTA has rebranded itself as Table Tennis England (TTE), reshuffled its entire organisation, including centrally contracted coaches, and relocated to Milton Keynes. In January, TTE announced that its funding has been restored in the form of a “two-year investment award up to March 2017”.

This money has been allocated for various schemes to boost participation, with grants to encourage clubs and leagues to install more tables and develop facilities to counteract the proclivity at multi-sports clubs to ditch the bulky table and instead concentrate on sports that command higher membership fees, such as tennis, and less need for storage space. While there’s been table shortage at sports clubs, club nights in Manchester have experienced the opposite effect, thanks to the current trend of drunken ping pong in Northern Quarter bars. Twenty Twenty Two now has seven tables available to use, while Kosmonaut houses one in its basement. It may not be the highest standard or anything more than a laugh on a night out, but it could spark an interest in the sport for those who realise they’d enjoy it and among a younger demographic than a lot of the current table tennis playing populous. If you’re below 25 and looking to join a local table tennis league, the chances are that you’ll be half the age of many of the others taking part, which is testament to those who’re remaining active as they grow older, but also a reflection of how few are being attracted to the sport.

One funding body which works with Sport England, amongst other organisations such as local councils, is GreaterSport, a charity serving the Greater Manchester area that has set the target of ensuring that one million of its residents are doing regular sporting activity by 2017. While that may seem a spurious figure, the core objectives of improving social wellbeing and creating positive role models can lead to wider benefits in the area. They encourage new coaches as well as new participants across a range of walks of life.

I recently applied to GreaterSport for funding towards a table tennis coaching badge course, so have directly experienced the opportunities they can offer. In order to qualify for the funding, I have arranged a series of voluntary coaching sessions, which are currently taking place at Twenty Twenty Two. Each session lasts an hour, is free to attend and is open to one of GreaterSport’s target demographics, 19 to 25-year-olds who play sport fewer than three times per month.

Free Table Tennis Coaching poster

Take advantage of some of the sports funding that remains. Get involved in that, and also in sport across the city. There are many similar activities supported by GreaterSport taking place all the time, so visit their website for details of what’s on offer near you.

The free table tennis sessions take place at Twenty Twenty Two each Sunday until 20 September, for an hour from 3pm. There is more information on Facebook.


Background image: Dream Genie by Vincent James.

Ian Pennington