‘Deeds must match words'

Former world champion Peter Karlsson believes China, a table tennis superpower, can be beaten. “The European game is a lot more creative and if we can match their hard work, we can beat them,” he says. By A. Joseph Antony.

Peter Karlsson was a member of Sweden's stupendous quintet – Jan-Ove Waldner, Jorgen Persson, Thomas von Scheele and Erik Lindh were the others – that breached the famed Chinese Wall of table tennis supremacy. Such an assault on the Asian superpower seems unlikely now but is not impossible, says the five-time world champion in conversation with Sportstar.

Question: What set apart the ‘Fab Five' of which you were an integral part?

Answer: We were a group of 15 back home, constantly competing with each other. Such was the intensity that we found European rivals easy to beat and big names were just big names. Of the 15, only five would make it to the Swedish team and only three would get to play when representing our country. Interestingly, Ulf Bengtsson, No. 6 in our group of 15, clinched the 1984 European Championship crown, outshining the top five!

How did you breach China's domination?

The seeds were sown when Waldner visited China in 1981. Their training programme wasn't too open, as is typical of the Chinese society. Nonetheless, some crucial points in their game were picked up and supplemented when I went in 1988. In 1989, we were ready for them.

What were the factors that went in your favour?

Our shake-hand grip put their pen-hold clasp at a disadvantage especially on the backhand. Gluing helped our speed and spin attacks better. The European game was/is certainly more creative and we matched our opponents when it came to hard work.

How did the Chinese regain their domination of world TT?

Like we went to China to study their game in the 1980s, they visited us in the 1990s. Being an open society, our training and tactics were there for all to see. The beginning of the end of the European challenge came in the 1995 Tianjin championships. It was not just the Chinese team we had to tackle but the entire nation that backed it! Austrian Werner Schlager did win the 2003 Paris World Championship but the Chinese were back on top thereafter.

Why such a slide in Swedish table tennis now?

Our generation had no distractions like round-the-clock TV and internet. Present-day players don't seem keen on putting in the kind of hard work that we did, nor do they have the discipline or dedication that we had. Societal and lifestyle changes have their impact too. Goals have to be identified by the time you are say 15 or 16 years old. Most importantly, deeds must match words.

What makes China such a formidable force?

Six-time women's world champion Deng Yaping told me it'd be a shame if China was not No. 1. ‘It has the world's largest player base, incredible infrastructure, highly qualified trainers and a structured programme aimed at international competition,' she explained.

And I'll add prestige/priority accorded there to the sport, easy affordability/availability of equipment, parental support for children to start when just four or five, exemplary attitude and hard work of the players, near complete control of coaches over their wards and yes, money, as other contributing factors. I've seen Chinese coaches confiscate laptops and mobile phones from their trainees. That's unthinkable in Sweden or Europe!

Are they unbeatable?

Not really. The European game is a lot more creative and if we can match their hard work, we can beat them. Besides, there's talent everywhere.

Tell us about yourself, post retirement?

I quit international competition after the 2006 Bremen World Championship. After a long stint in the international arena, I lacked the motivation to continue. I found the environment encouraging for coaching and plunged into it with gusto. I felt the need to share the knowledge and experience accrued over two decades at the highest levels. For a while, I played club TT for Levallois in Paris, where Jean-Philippe Gatien competed but quit due to a bad back.

Pedagogic power is a must in coaching and mere experience isn't enough. My ability to articulate this wisdom gave me an edge and I was keen to work with youngsters, especially outside Sweden. The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) embarked on the Global Junior Programme, incidentally launched in India in 2000, and I was roped in.

Was ‘Close to Karlsson' born out of this?

Yes it is an ITTF initiative that I run in Sweden. The Indian trio of G. Sathiyan, Soumyajit Ghosh and Harmeet Singh train with me in Falkenberg. The first two also play in the second division league for Angby SK. The scheme sponsors players from developing countries.

What made Peter Karlsson?

The group of 15 moulded me. Good competition always drives you higher. Passion for TT was paramount to me and I played the game with single-minded devotion. My parents encouraged me to pursue the sport after I quit college. I was a good student of economics but never went to any university.

What are the causes close to your heart?

I did voluntary work for Ping Pong Ba Dame (translates from Tetum to Peace through ping pong) in October at Dili, East Timor. It's a joint project between UNICEF, the ITTF's Development Department and Peace & Sport, a Monaco-based NGO using sport to promote peace in areas where it's fragile. Earlier in the year, I was in Barcelona for the ITTF's Hello Future conference. I've also visited Colombia to promote the sport.