by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
Present at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Brian Afanador and Adriana Diaz are very much the star names of Puerto Rico but there is much more to table tennis in the small Caribbean island, where the two teenagers have become role models and national celebrities.
Few countries can match the level of progress made by Puerto Rico in the past decade; now, can other national associations who are very much in the development phase, where Puerto Rico stood at the start of the century, learn from the example that has been set?
On Sunday 8th January, in the Headquarters of the National Olympic Committee, Ivan Santos, the President of the Puerto Rican Table Tennis Federation, ably supported by his wife, Leticia Castaldo, the First Lady, brought all those vital elements together.
An attendance of over 200 was present for lunch. Carlos Beltran Svelty (General Secretary of the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee) and by Andres Waldemar Volmar Mendez (Secretary of Puerto Rico Sport and Recreation Department) addressed those present, prior to presentations being made to those from younger than seven years old to over 70 years of age.
No less than 126 awards were made! Importantly in addition to those who had succeeded in the playing area; the precious volunteers were thanked and recognised.
Now there are well over 126 players, parents, coaches and officials motivated; all eager for the 2017 campaign to start.
Opportunities to play, the 2016 calendar witnessed ten clubs organise open tournaments; in addition three hosted various events in the national championships. Basically, there was a tournament every month; the four points of the island’s compass were all covered.
Impressively, when play concluded in Utuado on Saturday 7th January and Daniel Gonzalez, a fine player, was crowned Men’s Singles champion, the year-long tournament programme had attracted 2,881 entries, 5,415 matches had been played involving 29 clubs.
Note, the figures are not approximate, they are exact. A sound organisation is in place, in that respect, Ivan Santos has a Lord Lieutenant-in-Chief, the dapper Francisco Font. Always Paco, a former President of the Puerto Rico Table Tennis Federation; under his guidance and meticulous care the extensive tournament programme had run like clockwork.
It will be the same in 2017, of that I have no doubt; that is unless I kidnap him to provide the statistics for my articles!
Need accurate records, attention to detail, require someone who is ultra-reliable, answers questions with a welcoming smile in a quiet well thought out manner without a hint of panic? He’s your man, a true gentleman.
A most comprehensive schedule of events comprised the 2016 calendar; the 2017 itinerary is no different in an island where if you drive for two hours, it means you finish in the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. Basically, if you cannot see the destination with your naked eye, it’s considered a long way.
Additionally there is the weather, there is no chance of roads blocked by snow or icy conditions; in Puerto Rico 24 degrees Celsius is considered cold. I suggest next Christmas an exchange is arranged with Thorsten Gohl in Canada; he is doing a great job in North West Territories where minus 24 degrees Celsius is a heatwave.
Small in geographical size but that fact is turned to an advantage; wherever, the tournament is staged, the whole Puerto Rican family can meet; it creates a united approach and of course the success gained by the leading players adds a sense of enormous pride.
Overall a total of 20 events for a range of age groups and abilities were included in the 2016 itinerary; impressively Corozal, about 30 minutes by car west of San Juan, the capital, held the full complement but other hosts, staged events which fit their requirements.
Notably, in October in Ponce in the very south of Puerto Rico, there was one more added to schedule, a competition for players with special needs was staged.
However, there is one common factor; wherever you go, there is a hive of activity. One of the main reasons is the very basis why players compete; they want to play and they want to play more than just once. Two matches a day might by enough for Ma Long and Ding Ning; not for most mortals.
Thus events are organised in two stages, the group phase followed by the knock-out section. The relevant aspect is that in the group phase, no player is eliminated; every player advances to the main draw, the final place in the group determines the position in the main draw. Every player can expect to play at least four matches in each event.
A plethora of opportunities and there is the chance to become not only the local winner but also the Puerto Rican champion. All 20 events have a national championships at the end of the year; a headache for the organisers, not at all. Three centres, on different dates hosted the national events
Pertinently in the younger age group events, players entered just one of the competitions. In the under 7 years both boys and girls competed together; in under 9 years, under 11 years, under 13 and under 15 years there were separate events for boys and girls. Thus on Sunday 8th January, nine very young national champions were crowned; smiling, motivated young players standing proud as parents brushed away a tear of emotion and rushed to take a prized photograph.
Outstanding success on the international scene but in a different manner outstanding success domestically; in the Caribbean island where the locals are known as boricuas, table tennis is blossoming.
Ivan Santos and Leticia Castaldo, as they left the National Olympic Committee following the conclusion of the Award Ceremony, they could reflect on the Old Year with pride.
Moreover, they could look forward to the New Year with great hope, great anticipation; to them whether it be the star names or those making their first steps, everybody is of importance. It is why Puerto Rico is successful.