Weikert ponders possible conflict of interest in holding German and international table tennis presidencies
By Callum Murray
Thomas Weikert’s recent elevation to the presidency of the International Table Tennis Federation was “a little bit of a surprise,” given that he had only been elected deputy president last year, at the same time that Adham Sharara, the longstanding president, was re-elected to the post for a sixth four-year term.
Last month, however, Canada’s Sharara stepped down to be replaced by Germany’s Weikert, with Sharara taking up the newly-created role of chairman, in a move described as “historic” by the federation.
In an exclusive interview with Sportcal, Weikert, a lawyer, said: “It was a little bit of a surprise that I became president now. I was interested, but not necessarily now. Adham told me as a Christmas gift [last year]: ‘You’re my deputy and I want to step down’. So now I have to manage the federation.”
For the moment Weikert also remains president of the DTTB, the German table tennis federation, and has yet to decide whether he can continue to hold both posts, both from a workload point of view and also because of a possible perception of a conflict of interest.
He said: “I’m president of the DTTB, but my main job is as a lawyer. It’s not possible that the DTTB gets a new president immediately. We will discuss until the end of the year if it’s possible to work for both.”
In relation to the issue of a possible conflict of interest, Weikert said: “Before we had a president from a smaller association, Canada. Now, I’m from a bigger association that is strong in table tennis. Maybe some smaller associations will think I will put German interests first. I’ll check very carefully and give a decision at the end of the year.”
The DTTB’s elections are due to take place in November 2015, Weikert said, and “if the president steps down or is sick, the executive committee can decide to have an interim president,” according to the constitution.
Returning to the question of a conflict of interest, he said that while he was deputy president, “there were, of course, some conflicts of interest in the past when German points [such as the possible sanctioning of a German player] were on the agenda, so in the past I didn’t vote. At the moment there’s nothing, but there will be conflicts of interest in the future. In such cases, I didn’t vote, I didn’t say anything.”
A similar path was taken in relation to such issues by senior officials on the executive committee from countries such as Japan and China, Weikert said. However, he admitted: “If you’re the president it’s a bit different because you’re the first man, not the second.”
Turning to his main priorities for the federation in his new role, Weikert first cited: “The development of table tennis: in every nation there should be table tennis. Together with volleyball, we have the most national associations of any sport: 220. It’s not the goal to be the first, but the goal is that everywhere there should be table tennis.”
The ITTF is already involved in development projects in countries “with no [table tennis] infrastructure” such as Burundi, Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan, Weikert said.
He is also concerned that while the sport is relatively well and widely covered on television and the internet, press coverage is more scarce (one of the motives, perhaps, for this interview).
Weikert said: “We know we are good regarding video and internet streaming, but not print media. We have to strengthen that. We’re often on TV but we have to do more in print media.” He claimed that this would help to turn the sport’s top players into stars, saying: “If you have a Chinese star, you want to know, what is he doing beside table tennis?”
With respect to television, the federation is planning to experiment with a new, two-coloured ball, which will help viewers to understand better the spin and flight of the ball when shown in slow-motion replay.
Weikert said: “For TV it is good because you can explain because you can see the spin. But first we have to test it. We wanted to test it in a World Tour event [last month] but we had the feeling that the quality was not yet right, so we postponed it. We also have to take care that it is right for the mass of players who play in their leisure time.”
Weikert is also keen to explore possible means of limiting the duration of matches to provide more certainty for broadcasters, some of which presently baulk at the present system in which matches can last between one and three hours.
He said: “One set lasts six or seven minutes. Maybe you can shorten it by making the next point decisive after 10-10 [at present a player must win a set by at least two clear points]. These are only ideas, they’re not tested. We have to take care about it. But TV and internet streaming is the future, so it’s worth thinking about small changes.”
Asked how duties would be split between himself and Sharara in his new role, Weikert said that the division would be clear: “The chair runs the AGM, and the executive committee can make some tasks for the chair.”
Chief among these at present is the ITTF’s so-called ‘P5 Plan’, described by Weikert as: “how to get in the five best sports in the Olympic world in marketing, finance and sports.”
In early July, Sharara announced in an email sent to the global table tennis family that the deadline for consultation on the first draft plan and priorities for the project had been extended to 31 July, in response to what were described as “many requests” from the sport’s stakeholders.
Weikert said: “The big task of Adham is to look at all of the comments from more than 1,000 contributors from inside and outside the sport – because it is also interesting to see what people think who have nothing to do with table tennis. This is his task, and then we will discuss it at an executive committee meeting in Shanghai in December, when Adham will make a presentation.”
The main focus of the project, Weikert said, is “how to attract people to play table tennis,” and being recognised as one of the top five Olympic sports is “important because the more interest there is, the more players.”
However, he added: “The second motive is money.” Table tennis was recently promoted by the International Olympic Committee to a higher tier in its revamped funding structure for Olympic sports, based on an analysis of 30 criteria relating to the sports’ performance at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Its new ranking, Sharara recently wrote, implies that table tennis is now regarded by the IOC as being “in the 9th to 14th bracket of sports out of a total of 28 sports. Realistically we know that we rank 11th or 12th. Our Goal = Top 5.”
Weikert said: “We’re now in group C, not group D [in the IOC’s funding structure]. That means more money for projects to develop the sport. We need money because in many national associations there is no structure to play. We need coaches, equipment, people to go into the countries to develop the sport. For example most of the best South American players go to Europe to play. I don’t criticise the players but we have to find a system to develop the sport inside their countries.”
Asked whether, as a president who was appointed, not elected, he feels secure in the position, or whether an election is required to fully legitimise his presidency (the next presidential election is not due until 2017), Weikert laughed and said: “Of course an election is better. But at the moment I feel really good support. I felt it as deputy president, and I spoke many times with different associations and for them it is no problem.
“At the moment I feel I will run [in the election] in 2017. It’s the same as the US constitution, when the deputy president takes over if the president steps down. It’s our constitution. If I had a feeling that the associations don’t want me, that would be no good. But I was elected clearly [as deputy president] a year ago.