Four years after losing their funding, Scotland have a real medal chance
IF THERE are two phrases Craig Howieson hates more than any others, they are “ping pong” and “wiff waff”. The latter is the bizarre term which London mayor Boris Johnson memorably used to refer to table tennis, and which Howieson believes is symptomatic of an unwillingness to show his sport due respect. That negative perception is something that Scotland’s No.2 intends to challenge at next year’s Commonwealth Games.
“I can’t stand the perception that many people in Scotland seem to have of table tennis as almost a pub sport,” he says. “The Commonwealth Games are a huge opportunity to expose people to the game so that we can challenge those stereotypes, fight the stigma and show people what a great sport it can be, and demonstrate why it’s so popular in the rest of the world and is becoming trendy in London and New York. An old coach of mine referred to table tennis as ‘chess played at 100 miles an hour’ and when people see it live they can’t believe the speed and athleticism of the players. All of the tickets for the table tennis have sold out, which amazed me, but it gives us a great chance to show what we have to offer.”
In Howieson’s case, what he has to offer is a genuine medal shot in a sport at which Scotland have never been a significant world player. Even a year ago, the 23-year-old PE teacher would have been seen as, at best, an outsider, but at the Commonwealth Championships in New Delhi in May this year, he and Scotland No.1 Gavin Rumgay finished third in the team event, the first time a Scottish men’s team has ever won a medal at the event. It was a finish which has transformed expectations – including Howieson’s – and has pepped up his preparations for Glasgow 2014.
“We certainly weren’t expected to medal and the fact that we did is a huge bonus for us,” he says. “It sends a message to the other teams and it gives us a lot of confidence. We beat Wales, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, and were the only team in the tournament to take a match off the winners, Singapore. In that match against Singapore, Gavin won a game and I came so close to beating their No.1 – which would have made it 2-2 – that it convinced us that if we’re at the top of our game we’ll be a match for anyone in Glasgow.”
The Commonwealth Championships were also a cathartic experience for Howieson and Rumgay because they progressed at the expense of Malaysia, their nemesis at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. With three exceptionally strong teams in Singapore, England and India, the draw is everything, and in 2010 eighth seeds Scotland were expected to finish inside the top eight but were inexplicably and controversially drawn against sixth seeds Malaysia and lost a tight match that would have put them within spitting distance of a bronze medal.
More importantly, however, their failure to hit their predicted top-eight finish meant that they lost all of their funding. It was, says Howieson, a devastating blow from which the Scotland team is only just now recovering. “We had the rug pulled from under our feet, and it was a pretty horrible time,” he says. “We actually performed pretty well in Delhi, but that bizarre draw and the funding decision that followed meant that we lost national coach Li Chao, and all our structure. We were in the doldrums for 18 months and it was only when the Scottish Institute of Sport stepped in with some funding and we got a new coach [Hungarian Marton Marsi was appointed high-performance director last August] that things started to change.”
That appointment was the catalyst for a sharp upturn in results. Howieson has been prepared to put in the hours ever since his dad, Stirling, built a table tennis table in the attic when his son was an eight-year-old James Gillespie’s schoolboy, but now the national squad trains for three hours a day, six days a week at Edinburgh University. Despite the fact that, unlike their English counterparts, the Scots are part-timers, they have focus and high hopes.
There is also a camaraderie which should hold them in good stead. In particular, Howieson is close friends “on and off the table” with London-based Scottish No.1 Gavin Rumgay, a veteran who, as a Perth schoolboy was Scotland’s No.1 tennis player and beat Andy Murray five times (he only turned to table tennis because he was offered a table tennis sponsorship deal and couldn’t afford to pay for his tennis). Like Rumgay, whose wedding and stag weekend Howieson attended last year, the Edinburgh player is a keen all-round sportsman – he’s a low-handicap golfer, played representative tennis and badminton, and loves football, fives and rugby. The two have forged a great partnership while travelling the world together over the past ten years, since Howieson was a 14-year-old schoolboy.
Indeed, the whole Scotland squad is a very tight-knit bunch which includes players such as Glasgow’s Sean Docherty, Dumfries’s Calum Main and the Falkirk pair of veteran Stuart Crawford and 14-year-old prodigy Chris Wheeler. Just how many will be in Glasgow, however, is still to be decided. Howieson and Rumgay have effectively already qualified, but while Scotland can take up to five team members, it is likely to be fewer. Indeed, it’s only when you hear the world rankings that you realise how big a mountain the Scottish guys have to climb: Howieson is ranked 600 in the world and 300 in Europe, although he is on the verge of the top 32 in the Commonwealth.
Yet none of that is daunting for the Broughton High School teacher. “The rankings are just a number, and in any case they can be pretty misleading because there’s not much between the top players,” he says. “All it needs is a couple of good early wins and then, especially if you’ve got a good draw, you can build up the momentum and suddenly find yourselves in with a shout of a medal, which is where we all want to be. We did it in New Delhi, and now we’ve got to back ourselves to do it again in Glasgow, in front of our own people. It’s going to be great.”