CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Devon Life today CLICK HERE

Heather Fell: From whiff-whaff to Olympic sport

PUBLISHED: 09:00 16 March 2014


Columnist Olympic pentathlete Heather Hell investigates the allure of table tennis

"How did we lose control of a sport that we invented?"

Cigars and champagne are two less-than-healthy indulgences that one would not commonly associate with sport, especially not an Olympic sport. The British, however, have a history of looking at things from a different angle as the Mayor of London Boris Johnson famously explained when London won the Olympic bid: “The French looked at a dining table to have dinner on and we looked at a dining table to play whiff-whaff on.”

The sport of whiff-whaff, ping pong or table tennis, as it is now officially known, derived from dinner parties hosted by the English upper classes in the 1880s. The dining table was cleared, champagne corks were carved into balls, cigar box lids became bats and the after dinner entertainment commenced.

The sport originated with our upper classes but is now played by 2.4 million people in the UK with around 40 million playing globally, making it the sport with the most participants worldwide.

Table tennis held its first world championships in London in 1926 although did not become an Olympic sport until 1988. The attraction is simple: it is fast, fun and cheap - the modern bats and balls are thankfully more affordable than champagne and cigars. So how did we lose control of a sport that we invented?

For sometime now, China has dominated the world of table tennis and the only notable exceptions have been Chinese players gaining citizenship in other countries. One of their top athletes Zhang Jike said he grew up playing football but realised that had far less potential than table tennis in his country where the sport is immensely popular. The Chinese monopolise the sport the sport to such an extent that some have suggested they should provide training camps and inside knowledge to rival countries in order to make it more competitive and exciting on the world stage.

Sport of any sort has so many proven benefits but some can be inaccessible, expensive, weather dependant or only suitable for certain ages or fitness. Top level table tennis players require speed, power, agility and strength yet anyone can pick up a bat and have a go.

It was in a village hall that Devon’s Paralympian David Wetherill found his love for the sport. David was born with a rare bone development disorder called Multiple Epiphyseal Dsyplasia and was told by a doctor, at the time of diagnosis, that he would be wheelchair bound by the time he was a teenager. Having always been a keen swimmer and footballer, he discovered his love for table tennis at the age of ten thanks to his father who ran the local club. When David could no longer play football he chose to focus his fast reactions and competitive nature on table tennis.

It helped him through school, identifying himself as a sportsman not a disabled person, and most significantly it was the appetite to succeed that drove him. In 2002 following a talk from another Paralympian, David decided to take it seriously and three years later, the year that London won the bid to host the Olympics, he competed in his first international.

Having competed in Beijing and London, David is now targeting the Rio Olympics in 2016 to win that elusive medal. The next stepping stone on that journey are the world championships this September in yes, you guessed it, China.

This once traditionally English sport is yet again growing in popularity. “PingPong” bars are popping up in London and there are now 750 table tennis clubs throughout the country.

Devon has seen a direct effect from the London games and one Plymouth club especially, part of the Olympic table tennis floor, is now being used by Woolwell TT Club. Founder Kev Buddell has noticed the growth of the sport and with the help of Sport England has managed to expand Woolwell TT Club. It now has thirty five tables available on club nights.

The top level athletes usually start from a very young age but this shouldn’t discourage anyone from taking up the sport. Woolwell TT club recently had a gentleman take up the sport at the age of 70 so it really is never too late.

This article was first published in the March issue of Devon Life. To get the magazine delivered every month to your home, subscribe at or call 08448484217


More from Out & About

Tue, 11:47

Now is the perfect time to head for the bright lights of Exeter, where you can hunker down in one of the city’s many pubs, cafés and indoor attractions. Here’s our pick of the best places to keep warm, dry and entertained | Words: Chrissy Harris

Read more
Tue, 08:15

From cosy pubs galore to winter beach walks, there’s plenty to enjoy in Devon at Christmas. We list 19 reasons you should come visit us this December.

Read more
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Devon is particularly stunning at this time of year and so we’ve picked out 18 stunning pictures that encapsulate the county during the festive period

Read more
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Devon is a joy to explore with its beautiful beaches, pretty woodland and charming towns and villages. Made even more magical under a blanket of glistening frost, we pick 12 walks to blow away the cobwebs in the county this winter

Read more
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A South Devon walk along a wreck-rich coastline with SIMONE STANBROOK-BYRNE

Read more
Tuesday, November 20, 2018

In the latest of our 24-hour tours of Devon’s best locations, we head to Britain’s Ocean City

Read more
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

With breathtaking beaches, rolling countryside, stately homes and unique villages, it’s no wonder high-profile film productions flock to Devon - how well do you know the movies that have set up camp here however?

Read more
Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Whether it’s on our beautiful beaches, in our magnificent moors or within our stunning stately homes, film productions are constantly setting up in Devon. Here are 16 that you might not know used the county as a filming location

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

From angry spirits to headless horses and ghoulish monks, Devon has more than a few supernatural stories to get your skin crawling. We have picked 11 haunted places in the county

Read more
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

October is the perfect time to discover the joys of Exmoor. Jennette Baxter of Visit Exmoor suggests five great ways to enjoy autumn on the moor

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Wild camping can be one of the best ways to escape the crowds for a night or two and lose yourself in the landscape - SOPHIE PAVELLE chooses her five favourite places to ‘wild-life’ camp in Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

From sandy beaches and lighthouse-topped cliffs to views of the Jurassic Coast, the Devon coastline offers many perfect locations for a seaside walk. We pick 10 of the prettiest routes to take

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Take our quiz to find out how well you really know Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

As the weather starts to warm up and the Devon countryside beckons, LIZZIE JANE of the National Trust in the South West offers plenty of walk ideas for you to try. Whether you want a relaxed Sunday stroll or a more strenuous hike, here are 10 walks across Devon (and beyond) to help you escape the crowds and head off the beaten track

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search