Report on the Special Olympics Los Angeles 2015 - Mike Skinner

This was my first experience of a Special Olympics and it was certainly special in many ways. Those of us that have attended ITTF events would be surprised at the differences.

Firstly let me talk about the things dear to most officials hearts; meals and accommodation.

The accommodation was at Mount St. Mary’s University which is a Catholic girls university. We were paired up to share double rooms and each double room shared a bathroom. Asme and I were fortunate that the adjoining room did not have anyone who wanted to use the bathroom. Breakfast and evening meals were taken at the university and lunch was provided at the venue. The food in both places was very good and at the university the tables were set up outside under tables with umbrellas sponsored by Coca Cola. Incidentally at the university and at the playing venue there was an unlimited supply of all Coca Cola products. Transport to the venue was by air conditioned, and quite comfortable school buses but, unfortunately there was a one hour drive to the venue and each one of us had to get up every day at 5-00am to 5-30am and did not get back until 8-00pm. It was a long day. The location of the university was spectacular at the top of a mountain and surrounded by million dollar homes. It was in the Brentwood area, of O.J.Simpson fame, and quite close to Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

The Tournament

The equipment at the tournament was top class: Taraflex floor over concrete, 22 Joola 3000SC competition tables plus 4 extra as practice tables, Joola 3 star celluloid balls. As one can see, the dividers were not what we are used to and were a little low. This did not cause too much of a problem however and I wish TTCAN could grab some of the sponsors…..Disney, Mattel, ESPN, Deloitte, Coca Cola and many others.

The tournament format is unlike anything one experiences in ITTF circles. All 206 players were at the venue 3 days prior to the tournament to take part in the divisioning. This occurs to try and separate players of near equal ability. There is no seeding as such. The intent is to have each participant in a group to be as close in playing standard as possible. On completion of the divisioning the players were grouped according to age. There was another category in which an athlete was paired with an able bodied player. There were only 2 or 3 groups of five players and each was an individual group with the players playing for positions 1 to 5 but all players received a medal of some description. 

The remaining groups were 3 or 4 players with never more than 2 groups assigned to each age division. If there were 2 groups in an age category, and there was never more than 2, then on completion of the groups the #1’s would play for 1st and 2nd and so on down the list. If there was only one group of 4 they would just play the one round robin to determine the places. If there were 2 groups of 3 they would follow the same procedure but if an age category only had one group of 3 then the same group would play the same round robin twice. As you can imagine this led to many tie breakers being calculated as many wins and losses were reversed. There were no single elimination matches.

The biggest problems came in rule interpretation and enforcement. The majority of the groups and table assignments were done by Special Olympic personnel but they were expecting the play to be governed by ITTF rules. This caused problems as the majority of the Special Olympic athletes, all suffer from a mental disability, do not play in any organised league or any situation that most able bodied athletes play in. Many coaches did not know the ITTF rules and came to the games having played, at home, in white shirts and with no knowledge of the ITTF shirt rules. In addition the service rule had to be applied with a great deal of compassion and flexibility. To try to have a disabled athlete suddenly change a serve that he/she had been using for years is virtually impossible. Some of these athletes only appear in competition when they play in the Special Olympics every 4 years.

Having described, briefly, some of the challenges that faced the referees there were many rewards. The enthusiasm of these athletes was amazing and the relationships between the players and their coaches and, in some cases, able bodied partners was touching and often brought tears to the eyes. It was an experience I will never forget and am grateful for the opportunity to participate.

In conclusion, I should mention the umpire team: of approximately 55 umpires about 7 or 8 were of National or IU level, about 15 to 20 were club level and the remainder had never umpired a match before. To qualify they had simply passed a rules exam set by the USTTA. I have to applaud their efforts and the biggest compliment was for the coaches to tell us that the umpiring was the least of their problems.