At Tokyo 2020, paddle will be passed to next generation of Canadian table tennis athletes
Jeremy Hazin, 21, hopes to be country's next homegrown star
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 they emigrated from China in the early 2000s. They've already reached the apex of their careers, and as they head into what could very well be their final Olympic Games, they're hoping to pass the torch.
"I really want the new generation to take over my sport," says Wang, 35. "In my heart I want to produce some players from Canada who can actually shine for the country, shine themselves on the world stage."
The story of table tennis in Canada is one of immigration. Historically, the sport has been dominated at the highest levels by first-generation Canadians like Wang and Zhang. Only six of Canada's 20 Olympic table tennis athletes were born in Canada and 10 of the 14 immigrant athletes were born in China.
That is changing, though, and Jeremy Hazin, a Canadian-born 21-year-old, is proof.
When Hazin competes in Tokyo at his first Olympics, he'll represent that next generation. The son of a Palestinian father and second-generation Chinese-Canadian mother is exactly what the sport in Canada has been missing for so long: a homegrown star.
For years, the notion of someone like Hazin dominating Canadian table tennis was almost unthinkable. When Adham Sharara, the president of the Canadian Table Tennis Federation, first arrived in Canada in 1968 as a young man from Cairo, table tennis in this 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," Sharara said.
For decades, Canadian table tennis careers typically ended after university. There were so few table tennis clubs that Sharara often found himself seeking out one of the international students from Hong Kong to rally with him.
Immigration landscape changed
Then, in the mid-90s, the Canadian immigration landscape completely changed. After years of East Asian immigration coming almost exclusively from Hong Kong, immigration from mainland China soared.
Between 1995 and 2005, more than 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 to 90 per cent of the table tennis population, Sharara said. It's created a pipeline of talented young players who compete in hundreds of clubs that now exist across the country.
"If it wasn't for the Chinese immigration there would not be a Jeremy," Jeremy's father, Sam, said.
When Sam immigrated to Canada in the late 70s, he was forced to give up the sport he had grown up playing in Bethlehem, Palestine. After university there was just nowhere to play, he said. For two decades he stopped playing the sport entirely, as he was unable to find anyone who he could compete against.
You can say this about any other table tennis athlete that grew up in Canada. Had they grown up somewhere else, by definition they would be better.- Sam Hazin on developing talent
In 2009, that changed. A parent at Jeremy's school convinced Sam to come to a local Chinese table tennis club. Back then, Jeremy used to hang around his father a lot and table tennis seemed like a way to keep Jeremy occupied after school and on weekends.
It was clear right from the start that Jeremy possessed the innate skills to become a table tennis star. Young players typically smash the ball back across the board, using all their strength to crush the weightless ball like a baseball. Jeremy, however, understood the finesse required to properly play the sport. He was always able to return the ball on the table, Sam said.
Jeremy remembers the older Chinese men at the club used to call him over to rally with them. They liked playing against the young boy and wanted to encourage him to keep improving. At first, Jeremy would lose. He couldn't figure out the tricky spin more experienced players like to put on the ball. Within months, though, he'd figured it out. He swiftly started beating the older men, and with each win more competitors were ready to challenge him.
"That's the first moment I realized maybe I have some talent in the 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 has simply been the lack of an organized developmental 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 would spend six or seven hours a day playing table tennis, trying to earn a spot on China's national team, quite possibly the toughest team in the world to make. 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 simply 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 that grew up in Canada. Had they grown up somewhere else, by definition they would be better."
Still Canadian table tennis has come a long way in the past decade. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, participation had hit record numbers with more clubs than ever before.
The goal for the Tokyo Olympics is for Wang and Zhang to medal in mixed doubles, Sharara said, adding it's doable if they don't draw China too early. But as Wang and Zhang step aside in the not-too-distant future, Sharara is optimistic for the next games in Paris and Los Angeles, and more broadly, for the future of the sport in Canada. He envisions a group of very talented Canadian-born players that will soon be pushing for spots on the national team.
For the first time in Canadian table tennis history, there should soon be home-grown competition for table tennis supremacy. For Hazin, his family, and Canadian table tennis, that's something to look forward to.