September 30, 2018

Tokannata Iotioatene surveying the blue waters of Kiribati.

Table tennis has come along way in Kiribati. Just ask Tokannata Iotioatene.

Growing up in Kiribati the 90s, Tokannata had an eye for sports. Options were slim, and his first choice was tennis.  But when he would arrive at the tennis court, excited to play, he would be turned away. Tennis was off limits to Tokannata and his friends.

“Tennis is an adult sport,” the somewhat grumpy grownups would say. “Go play somewhere else.” 

A disappointed Tokannata, bursting with energy and wanting to test out his competitive spirit, was left searching for another game. 

In 1997, Tokannata found table tennis; or at least some version of it. 

“In my area there was only one house playing table tennis,” says Tokannata. “We really liked that house and at first would go there with our tennis rackets to play.” 

There were no rules, and the games were a free for all. Tokannata suggests that someone must have visited the island and introduced the sport, but the game had quickly turned in to its own special beast. 

The equipment was as ad hoc as the rules. The table was a dinner table, the net was a plank of timber; ‘every table is a table tennis table’ isn’t just a cute catchphrase.

The ball of course was also unique. Table tennis balls were all but non-existent in Kiribati. But that wasn’t going to stop them. The answer was to take the ball out of a bottle of roll-on deodorant. This solution had a couple of benefits. For one it guaranteed the ball was perfectly round; a necessary characteristic if there was one. And secondly it was ridiculously hard and would last more than month, making for a practical solution. 

Eventually Tokannata’s paddle became more specialised as the tennis racket was abandoned for a plywood bat. However the design was still taken off a tennis racket, so the handle was comically long; but it was one step closer to the real thing.  

This is the way that Tokannata and his friends first experienced table tennis. It wasn’t just a sport, but a test of their determination to be involved in athletic hobby and pursuit. This was the way that they continued to play, until one day they heard that Kiribati was about to have a visitor who would be teaching table tennis. The visitor was Glenn Tepper. 

Glenn Tepper had recently taking on a table tennis development role in Oceania. The job was focused on grass roots development and increasing the awareness of the sport throughout the continent. 

But for Tokannata, Glenn’s arrival came with some more practical revelations in the form of proper equipment for table tennis.

“I felt keen to learn more, because I had been playing, but not with the proper table tennis ball and racket,” He says

Spin was a revolutionary concept. Tokannata had previously only ever used plywood equipment, making even the thought of gripping the ball impossible. With the new and improved table tennis bats with rubber both sides, Kiribati had their world spun round. 

“I learnt all the basics from Glenn, backspin, sidespin, topspin.”

Tokannata now boasts that he was the first person in Kiribati to brush the ball and impart spin. While this may seem like an everyday part of table tennis, it was a groundbreaking moment for table tennis in the country.  

When Glenn Tepper left Kiribati that first time, what remained behind was a lasting legacy. Knowledge about the basic rules and technique were now planted. Combined with new equipment, the stage was set for table tennis to blossom. 

A group of some ten people kept playing the sport. It was a small but enthusiastic bunch that took it upon themselves to spread the word of table tennis. 

“We only had one table, we would put it on the truck and take it to every different village and have a competition, while playing exhibition matches and doing demonstrations for them,” says Tokannata.

The exhibitions were a success. Everyone would come out of their houses to watch table tennis in action. In fact, they proved so successful that the Ministry of the Environment invited the crew of table tennis enthusiasts to start undertaking school visits.

Tokannata Iotioatene introducing table tennis to people with vision impairment.

In 2007 Tokannata hung up his racket as player. His attention now turned to coaching and development. The first notch on his belt was being part of securing twenty-four tables for schools. In 2008 the table arrived and had an immediate impact. Within a year table tennis was the go to sport for parents. It was becoming an appealing sport for parents who wished for their children to see more of the world.

“You could travel a lot playing table tennis,” says Tokannata. “There was lots of opportunities with the Oceana Championships and also the Commonwealth Games.” 

But getting involved in table tennis still had barriers to overcome. Once again it was the equipment that proved to be a challenge. 

“Only those who are making a good salary can buy a racket. The price of living now is very expensive.”

A good government job may provide a salary of somewhere between sixty to ninety dollars a fortnight. A table tennis racket will set someone back almost eighty dollars. With a bag of rice costing twenty dollars, it’s obvious that the first priority would be food over table tennis. This is why putting bats in as many hands as possible is key part of table tennis development.

With table tennis now firmly part of Kiribati, Tokannata now hopes that one day table tennis will have more permanent roots.

“I want to see our own table tennis venue,” he says. “This is a big challenge for us. We know that people like table tennis now. The problem is that we don’t have a venue that we own and that we can control when we want to play and and what time.”

It may seem like a dream now, but with how far Kiribati table tennis has come, there’s no reason to think that one day it won’t be a reality.  And with his eyes set on the future of table tennis in Kiribati, Tokannata can’t help but smile at the journey the sport has taken. 

“Table tennis is now increasing in numbers,” says Tokannata. “It’s very impressive when you see that. One table tennis table on the truck, and everyone comes along.”