08/04/2012 09:55 EDT | Updated 10/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Getting an edge: Table tennis players tamper with rackets in sport's version of 'doping'

LONDON - Maybe they should be called paddle-enhancing substances.

Players seeking an edge in table tennis have been known to use some banned substances, although in this instance they're applied to the racket — what ordinary pingpong enthusiasts would call a paddle — to get more grip, spin and speed.

The banned substances go by various names — speed glue, booster or tuner.

The world governing body of table tennis has eliminated part of the problem but has yet to wipe it out. Adham Sharara, the organization's president, used the word "cheating" to describe how some players get an edge.

Following the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the International Table Tennis Federation banned the use of speed glue, a highly toxic compound that has been linked to cancer. Players used to apply it to fasten the rubber to their rackets. The glue expanded the rubber, providing more speed and spin and causing the celluloid ball to take more dips and curves.

This is the same compound that glue-sniffers inhale.

"Now players have started to find other elements to put on the racket that will give the same effect," Sharara said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Speed glue was banned partly on health grounds, and the ITTF has ways to spot it.

When speed glue was banned, Sharara said players started to look for another way to gain advantage, using nontoxic substances known as boosters or tuners. They're not banned — largely because the ITTF has yet to find a way to detect what are mostly oil-based substances that may give "about 85 per cent of the effect of speed glue."

Sharara said the ITTF knows which players are using booster — "players talk" — and said he expects a test for it to be available "very soon." He said it's also possible it may be permitted, but he'd like to see it gone by the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

"The problem is some use it, some don't use it," he said. "So it's not an even playing field. We're trying now to find detection mechanisms. We'd prefer to find detection. If we allow it, we don't what else they'll be able to use."

Asked if the practice amounted to cheating, Sharara replied: "We think it's cheating. ... And the justification from some of the players is, well, we're not doing anything against a person's health. All we are doing is fine-tuning. Or we're making the rubber perform better. It's like driving on the highway. They drive 100, and if there are no police around they drive 110."

Table tennis players are control freaks, looking for any sliver of margin to guide the tiny ball across a slick table. Their moves around the court can seem huge, sweeping strokes that look even bigger in the small area.

Players continually fidget, walking to the net and wiping their sweaty hands on the table — choosing the spot where the ball is least likely to land. They blow on their paddles, spin balls to make sure they're perfectly round and hard. Many stomp their feet as they're serving, drowning out the soft ping sound.

"Every little detail counts," Sharara said. "It's almost a sickness I would say."

Many players at the Olympics, none willing to be quoted, agree that the foreign substance improves grip and speed, and it makes the ball click with a familiar sound.

Pro-style paddles — most are wood and carbon fiber — cost about $200, and it's another $100 each time players change the rubber, which is often. Most have sponsors that foot the bills.

"I would say it's 95 per cent psychological," Sharara said. "They (players) lost the feeling they had with the speed glue and they need that feeling back. ... But when you look at the performance, there's not that much difference."

A former player for Canada, Sharara described many players as "eccentric and inward." He recalled the strange behaviour of Jan-Ove Waldner, the 1992 Olympic singles champion from Sweden. Many still regard him as the game's greatest.

"He played in the Olympics wearing the same shirt and never washed it," Sharara said. "When he went to receive the medal, they told him he had to wear a clean shirt."

Sharara said the filthy pullover is framed in his office. Still unwashed.

Matthew Syed, a two-time Olympian and three-time Commonwealth Games table tennis champion, likened players to those of a more sedentary profession.

"It's like tax laws," the Englishman said. "You have clever accountants who push the boundaries — then they change the rules again. I suppose you can characterize that as life itself."

Syed said no one should be surprised pingpong players push the envelope.

"Table tennis has two distinctive meanings," he said. "It's a mass participation parlour game that anybody can play. It's recreational. Then you have the elite, techo-crazy game. They are very different. So people are often surprised. But at this level, people are always looking for that edge."


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