Eugene Wang and Mo Zhang are ready to move on.
The two Olympians have dominated Canadian table tennis for more than a decade, sitting at or near the top of the Canadian rankings since emigrating from China in the early 2000s. They have already reached their peak. career, and as they head into what could very well be their last Olympics, they hope to pass the torch.
“I really want the new generation to take charge of my sport,” said Wang, 35. “In my heart I want to produce players from Canada who can really shine for the country, shine on the world stage.”
The history of table tennis in Canada is one of immigration. Historically, the sport has been dominated at the highest level by first generation Canadians like Wang and Zhang. Only six of the 20 Canadian Olympic table tennis athletes were born in Canada and 10 of the 14 immigrant athletes were born in China.
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That is changing, however, and Jeremy Hazin, a 21-year-old Canadian born in Canada, is proof of that.
When Hazin takes part in his first Olympics in Tokyo, he will represent this next generation. The son of a second-generation Palestinian father and Chinese-Canadian mother is exactly what sport has been missing in Canada for so long: a local star.
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For years, the notion of someone like Hazin dominating Canadian table tennis was almost unthinkable. When Adham Sharara, president of the Canadian Table Tennis Federation, arrived in Canada in 1968 as a young man from Cairo, table tennis in that country was more of a game than an organized sport.
“At that time, it was really almost non-existent. There was almost no participation in international events,” said Sharara.
For decades, Canadian table tennis careers generally ended after college. There were so few table tennis clubs that Sharara often found herself looking for one of Hong Kong’s international students to join him.
The immigration landscape has changed
Then, in the mid-1990s, the Canadian immigration landscape changed dramatically. After years of East Asian immigration coming almost exclusively from Hong Kong, immigration from mainland China has skyrocketed.
Between 1995 and 2005, over 300,000 Chinese citizens arrived in Canada. They brought with them their cultures, traditions, cuisines and sports. Today, first, second and third generation Chinese Canadians make up between 70 and 90 percent of the table tennis population, said Sharara. He created a pipeline of talented young players who compete in the hundreds of clubs that now exist across the country.
“If it hadn’t been for Chinese immigration, there wouldn’t be Jeremy,” Jeremy’s father Sam said.
When Sam immigrated to Canada in the late 1970s, he was forced to give up the sport he grew up playing in Bethlehem, Palestine. After college there was nowhere to play, he said. For two decades, he completely stopped playing the sport, because he couldn’t find anyone with whom he could compete.
You can say this about any other table tennis athlete who grew up in Canada. If they had grown up elsewhere, by definition, they would be better off.– Sam Hazin on talent development
In 2009, that changed. A parent from Jeremy’s school convinced Sam to come to a local Chinese table tennis club. Back then, Jeremy hung out with his dad a lot, and table tennis seemed like a way to keep Jeremy busy after school and on weekends.
From the start, it was clear that Jeremy possessed the innate skills to become a table tennis star. Young players usually crush the ball on the board, using all of their strength to crush the ball in zero gravity like a baseball. Jérémie, however, understood the finesse necessary to practice the sport well. He was still able to return the ball to the table, Sam said.
Jeremy remembers the older Chinese men at the club calling him to get together with them. They loved playing the young boy and wanted to encourage him to keep improving. At first, Jeremy would lose. He couldn’t understand the delicate spin that more experienced players like to put on the ball. Within months, however, he had understood. He quickly started beating the older men, and with each victory more and more contestants were ready to challenge him.
“It was the first moment I realized that maybe I was talented in this sport,” Hazin said. “I started beating them after a few weeks or months without any professional training.”
Lack of development system
The problem for Hazin was simply the lack of an organized development system in Canada. In China, on the other hand, there are boarding schools where talented children can train to develop their skills. Wang and Zhang spent six or seven hours a day playing table tennis, trying to earn a spot on the Chinese national team, possibly the toughest team in the world to form. For Jeremy, there was almost no structure. He and his family had to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to support their son’s athletic career.
“He just grew up in the wrong place,” Sam said of his son. “I know… he could have been a lot better. I mean, you can say this about any other table tennis athlete who grew up in Canada. If they had grown up elsewhere, by definition, they would be better. “
Yet Canadian table tennis has come a long way in the past decade. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance had reached an all-time high with more clubs than ever.
The goal of the Tokyo Olympics is for Wang and Zhang to win a mixed doubles medal, Sharara said, adding that it was doable if they didn’t eliminate China too early. But as Wang and Zhang step down in the not-so-distant future, Sharara is optimistic about upcoming games in Paris and Los Angeles, and more broadly, for the future of sport in Canada. He envisions a very talented group of Canadian-born players who will soon be seeking national team spots.
For the first time in Canadian table tennis history, there should soon be a local competition for table tennis supremacy. For Hazin, his family and Canadian table tennis, this is something to look forward to.