Ping-ponging their way to Beijing

With over 6,000 committed competitors in Jerusalem alone, the city's burgeoning passion for ping-pong has become undeniable.

olympic promo 224 (photo credit: )
olympic promo 224
(photo credit: )
With over 6,000 committed competitors in Jerusalem alone, the city's burgeoning passion for ping-pong has become undeniable. Nevertheless, many would be surprised to learn that table tennis is the second most-played sport in the world next to soccer. Among Jerusalemites involved in the sport, many credit David Altaraz with providing a dedicated network of clubs through which to pursue table tennis. Generally referred to by nickname Dudik, Altaraz is the Israeli Champion of disabled table tennis players. Despite neurological damage to his right arm, the incredible speed and precision of his left has allowed him to become one of Jerusalem's most treasured competitors, and to also compete in top able-bodied leagues. "It is the fastest ball sport in the world," said Altaraz enthusiastically. "You have to think very very fast. It's exciting." Altaraz has played a pivotal role in the evolution of table tennis in Jerusalem and is currently preparing to represent his country in the upcoming Paralympics in Beijing this September. "I've played since I was a kid, and I'm still in it," said Altaraz, who is now engaged in the sport in all realms. As manager and head coach of table tennis at Hapoel Jerusalem for the past 15 years, Altaraz has helped personally guide more than 200 players, both with and without disabilities, in actualizing their athletic potential. Through organizing leagues in many Jerusalem neighborhoods including Kiryat Yovel, Gilo and Ramat Sharet, he has indirectly coached hundreds more. The club is composed of five leagues of varying skill levels, and in addition to organizing events Altaraz also competes in the most elite division. Another notable player in Jerusalem's table tennis community is David Stolzman, co-owner and General Manager of JUMP, a local fitness center, who made aliyah from Toronto 14 years ago and has brought his childhood love of the game with him. In addition to competing in tournaments in both Canada and Israel, including those run by Altaraz, he has transformed JUMP into one of the few gyms in the city equipped for table tennis. Stolzman describes with audible pride the popularity the table has generated, and the vast improvement he has noted in its practitioners. In light of their deep passion for the sport, many of table tennis's most loyal supporters express frustration at the global lack of appreciation for the game. "When they think of table tennis, most people think of it just as an amusement game," said Stolzman. "It's actually an amazing sport because it requires tremendous coordination, agility and split-second timing and speed." David Olschewski, who travels to Gilo twice a week to compete in Altaraz's adult leagues, echoed his sentiments. "There are a lot of people that appreciate the sport, but it's not appreciated enough. It's a very exciting game and I don't understand why more people aren't involved." As a major advocate of fitness, Stolzman is quick to highlight the health benefits of table tennis. "Despite what a lot of people think, it an amazing workout," he said, "Especially when you get to the higher levels." Although there is no doubt that table tennis has yet to reach its full potential, it has taken tremendous strides in the international arena since its origins as after dinner entertainment for elite Victorians in the late 1800s. In 1988, table tennis was introduced into the Olympics and a number of countries now boast government-sponsored professionals. The evolution of the game is occurring in Israel as well, and table tennis is featured in the Maccabiah Games as well as in leagues ranging in caliber all across the country. Although Altaraz will be one of only four Israelis playing the sport in Beijing, all of whom will compete at the Paralympic games for disabled athletes held after the regular games, he is optimistic that new emerging leadership in Israel's table tennis network is generating awareness and elevating popular opinion of the sport. "They invest a lot in the youth, and I think in a few years we will hear good results for Israel at the international level," he said. Altaraz is joined by many in encouraging fellow Jerusalemites to take advantage of the opportunities to pursue table tennis locally. "Anyone who wants to play can come and join," said Altaraz in characteristic fashion. "We will welcome anyone who would like to participate in this fun and exciting game."