Where to play table tennis in Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, and Coquitlam

My Year of Magical Thinking

(Or how I believed I could save organized table tennis in BC)

GUEST EDITIORIAL

This article was submitted February 2024 and is written by: William Vrabel, Former BCTTA Communications Director (December 2022-December 2023)

My ascension from casual table tennis player to a directorship within the BC Table Tennis Association was swift and unexpected. As I sat among the other directors, my optimism could have moved mountains. I had no idea what I was in for.

Has it been more than a year already? It’s January 14th, 2024 and I am pondering my life in the early morning hours of a new day in the early days in a new year. Mostly, I’m thinking about how relieved I am that the unusual drama of the past year is over. How did it even begin? After all, I’m just your average table tennis enthusiast who normally steers clear of storms developing along the horizon of my life. But, in my naivete, I was drawn in to what appeared at first to be a great opportunity to serve the table tennis community in BC. With apologies to Joan Didion, here’s the story of what I call My Year of Magical Thinking…

The Calling

In 2023, I’d gone from picking up a racquet after a decades-long absence from the sport to becoming, and then ultimately resigning, as a member of the board of directors of the BC Table Tennis Association, the BCTTA, a 65 year-old provincial sports agency that helped me become a better player when I was a poor kid from east Van just learning how to play.

Prior to this past year, the last time I’d really played table tennis, I was 17 and a member of the BC Junior Table Tennis Team Squad. It was July of 1977 at Dunbar Community Centre and the BC Junior Team was on the verge of defeating both arch-rivals Ontario and Quebec to take the “Best Canadian Junior Team” title at the Canadian National Junior Table Tennis Championships. We did win and, after that tournament, my Stiga racquet (with Yasaka Mark V rubber) went into its case where it sat for decades until a fateful phone call from a friend late in the pandemic asking if I wanted to play table tennis outside at the steel tables at Empire Fields.

I gladly accepted my friend’s invitation and that session on afternoon in the sun re-ignited my passion for the sport. I began looking for other places and people to play and eventually built this website to share what I had found. It seems the mythical Goddess of Table Tennis, from the Larry Saunders Show, had tapped me on the shoulder and whispered into my ear, “The game wants you back!” I ultimately succumbed to the siren’s call and soon after completing the website, a series of five serendipitous events followed, one after the other.

The first event: nearly all my old table tennis pals from the competitive days trickled one by one back into the sport over the next year, a story in itself.

The second: I was hired on the spot to rebuilt and rebrand the BC Table Tennis Association (BCTTA) website after a chance meeting with the BCTTA president, who liked my website design credentials and my link with table tennis.

The third: Quite by chance, I became reacquainted with my old coach and mentor, Dr. Chandra Madhosingh, now an elderly man but still deeply involved in table tennis. Back in ’73, he opened the door for me as a 13 year old just learning the sport. I ran through that open door, practised constantly, and after one year became a competitive player and member of the BC junior table tennis team squad.

The fourth: Chandra died suddenly a few months later in December of 2022 after a short illness, and in the aftermath I felt the urge deep down pay back my debt to Chandra through some kind of volunteer service towards the sport.

The fifth: Weeks after Chandra’s passing, out of curiosity I attended the BCTTA’s Annual General Meeting in January 2023 and was introduced as the author of the new website to smattering of applause and, before I knew it, someone nominated me and I was voted-in unanimously to become the communications director for the BCTTA. Flattered, I accepted the volunteer role.

My interpretation of the meaning of these five cascading events led me to some lofty thoughts. What if I could make a difference in an organization that seemed to have lost it’s energy? What if I could help restore the BCTTA to its glory days in the 80’s when the agency’s reach extended across the province? My year of magical thinking had begun…

The Awakening

As the new BCTTA Communications Director, my first task was to completely rebuild the agency’s WordPress website, an old relic, poorly maintained and oddly devoid of any meaningful table tennis news or info about what’s going on across the province, an obvious red flag at the time but I missed it. Once completed, the new BCTTA website was just the opposite. It looked great, contained interesting articles, and garnered hundreds of page views weekly from players across BC as evidenced by the growing list of people signing up to receive a quarterly newsletter.

Following the successful launch of the new website, my enthusiasm for my new role grew exponentially. The logical next step as communications director was to meet with the other directors, pool our ideas and plan how to cover and promote table tennis in BC over the coming year. This meeting proved to be the first indicator that something was not quite right with the BCTTA. Virtually no one had any ideas and all but one of the other directors seemed to be doing little if anything at all in developing and embracing their assigned roles. This came as a shock and I immediately felt a large crack begin to form in the shell of my naiveté. I had clear memories from my youth of a very active BCTTA working with a network of table tennis advocates in dozens of communities large and small across the province. I was beginning to see this was not the BCTTA I knew. I was quick to learn that in this BCTTA, the president of the association owned a table tennis club, the directors were basically friends and associates of the club owner, and the sum total of all of the activities of the BCTTA was directed towards generating revenue for the club. There were no “outsiders” involved, no other clubs represented. Nothing. WTF! The cracked shell of my naiveté dropped away at this point.

In the weeks to follow, as I subsequently met people from all corners of the divergent table tennis community, just about everyone seemed to know and accept the dynamic that I had just learned about: the table tennis club and the BCTTA were one and the same, and there was no BCTTA acting broadly to promote the sport across BC. Every single player I spoke to, every single club I visited, had long ago given up on being associated with the BCTTA. At this point, my naiveté had been replaced by red-face embarrassment at being a part of the agency, and sadness for the loss of potential for meeting the needs of players who reached out. 

As the months went on, the disconnection between what the BCTTA was actually doing and what players across BC expected from BCTTA became even more apparent. The BCTTA was not at all interested in promoting table tennis in BC beyond the interests of that specific club. In fact, all of the articles I was asked to officially post on the BCTTA website were promotions of some kind for the table tennis club owned by the BCTTA president. Meanwhile, I was packing the website with interesting and inclusive articles on a range of table tennis topics and was hearing back from players all over the province who had viewed the website and now believed that the BCTTA could help them and their communities grow the sport. Requests for where to find lessons, programs and certified coaches poured into the website. Emails arrived from people across BC asking for assistance in establishing table tennis in their communities. I responded to all of the communications with the pretence that we were actively working on developing community outreach programs but we were not. The realization that this publicly funded agency had been hijacked from its original purpose was hard to take morally and ethically, and I needed to get out.

The Reckoning

By November of 2023, the lay of the land was clear and I knew I was done with the BCTTA. I submitted my resignation. I felt personally relieved, but also sad for table tennis players across BC. Over the past year I had learned three important lessons. First, the BCTTA exists solely in name and not in action; second, local players have known about this for years and have learned to grow their game without assistance from the BCTTA; third, there is a very strong need for an new province-wide agency, one modelled after the original BCTTA, made up of organizers and volunteers who gave their time generously and without reservation to help meet the needs of other players across BC. We need a new provincial agency that will use the generous government funding it receives each year to grow the sport in BC. This needs to happen soon!

So, in the early hours of a new day, in the early days of a new year, I’m feeling unburdened. In sharing my experiences of the past year, I hope to generate public awareness of the problem of the BCTTA, and I hope this leads to challenge the so-called BC Table Tennis Association to begin to open up to change, to evolve and grow and become a true “association” representing all regional interests, to once again serve the needs of the entire table tennis community in BC as the agency had for decades.