— Published 29 August 2023

“The time has come to be more creative”

The end of August is proving to be a busy month for the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and its President, Petra Sörling (photo above). The Swede was in Bangkok last week for the ITTF Summit and General Assembly. Then she set down her bag in China, to initial an agreement awarding the city of Chengdu the next five editions of a new-style World Cup.

In the meantime, the former table tennis player, who in November 2021 will become the third woman to preside over an international federation of an Olympic sport – after Marisol Casado in triathlon and Annika Sörenstam in golf – answered questions from FrancsJeux.

FrancsJeux: Last week, the ITTF General Assembly awarded London the bid to host the 2026 World Table Tennis Championships, the centenary year of the event and of the ITTF. How do you feel about this victory for the English capital, which was in competition with Bangkok?

Petra Sörling: Both London and Bangkok were very good bids. And we were wonderfully received and treated at the ITTF Summit and General Assembly last week in Thailand. But returning to London in 2026, where it all began a century earlier, means a great deal to table tennis. During the London presentation, I was able to see just how motivated the British were to organize a truly extraordinary World Championship.

What else did you retain from this second edition of the ITTF Summit?

Last year, in Jordan, the first edition of the Summit was above all an opportunity for the table tennis family to get together for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic. In Bangkok this year, the Summit was marked by very rich and productive sessions. The online intervention by Marie Sallois, IOC Director of Sustainable Development, was remarkable. The delegates talked a lot about it afterwards, during the Summit, not only during the sessions dedicated to this theme. When I hear people talking about sustainability and environmental protection during the break, I tell myself as President that we’re on the right track.

What will be your priority over the next 10 or 11 months leading up to the Paris 2024 Games?

Right now, everything will revolve around preparing for the Olympic Games. We want the event to be something extraordinary for table tennis, to be presented in a new way. We’re working hand in hand with the Paris 2024 OCOG. They made a presentation at the general meeting in Bangkok. At the same time, the athletes must be able to qualify and prepare in the best possible conditions. That’s why our priority, above and beyond everything else, is to organize as many tournaments as possible.

How do you and the Paris 2024 OCOG plan to present table tennis in a new way next year?

We share a desire to innovate with the organizing committee. We push them to come up with different ideas, and they push us to think about a new presentation. The innovation will be in the colors, the music, the way we involve the public… But innovation is not limited to table tennis. The opening ceremony on the Seine is perhaps the best illustration of a willingness to try things never before proposed. At the same time, the emphasis is on sustainability. These Games can help the Olympic movement, and the ITTF with it, to move forward.

Table tennis has five medal events, as of the Tokyo 2020 Games, with the addition of mixed doubles. Would you like to see more?

Of course I would. You always want more, especially for a sport like table tennis, which is on the program almost from the first to the last day of the Games. For the next Games, in Los Angeles in 2028, we want to be creative and see what can be added, without increasing the number of players.

You’re thinking of a return to doubles, men and women?

Not just that. When I see the way in which basketball, with 3×3, and volleyball, with beach volleyball, have taken over other fields, I say to myself that it’s time for us to be more creative and explore new avenues. I don’t have the answer. But I do think we need to make this a priority. Maybe we’ll finally manage to push for the return of doubles, but maybe the future will lie in something much more innovative.

Since the creation of the ITTF, table tennis has never had a president who was also an IOC member. Could you be the first? Is that a goal?

Since my election as President, my aim has been to bring the ITTF and table tennis closer to the Olympic movement. Being an IOC member would be a dream for me. But we’re not there yet. We need to start thinking about how we can organize more and more events and work closely with the rest of the Olympic movement. I think we’ve already made some progress. I was recently elected to the ASOIF board, where we also have a greater presence on committees. At the IOC, Seung-min Ryu is Vice-President of the Athletes’ Commission and a member of five other commissions. When I arrived at the ITTF in 2009, we were relatively unconnected with the Olympic movement. Today, we have closer ties. And I’m looking forward to going even further.