Table Tennis: The national table tennis hall in Thimphu looks totally abandoned. It is Friday, 5:30pm. Two boys are playing football outside. On the stairs of the hall are two table tennis rackets. The boys are waiting for their friends.

Bhutan Table Tennis Federation is one of the oldest federations in the county. The sport, however, has become pretty much dormant now. Only a handful of children take interest in the game.

A few boys and girls show up and enter the hall. Among them are the two 14-year-old junior national players who were recently selected through try-outs.

Sonam Deki of Motithang Higher Secondary School (MHSS) doesn’t speak much. She began playing the game at the age of eight.

“Besides support from my family and friends, it is my own interest in the game that has helped me continue with it so far,” said Sonam Deki. “Playing table tennis makes me happy.”

Another 14-year-old Leki Dorji of MHSS, shares a similar interest in the game. He has been playing the game since he was in Class II.

“I would have been a footballer. However, I was introduced to the game of table tennis by one of the volunteer coaches from Japan, Kiyo,” said Leki Dorji. “Today, of all the games, I enjoy table tennis the most.”

Sonam and Leki also are the siblings of the current national table tennis players, Tashi jamtsho and Namgay Dorji.

“Our brothers’ involvement in the sport was a big factor,” said Leki Dorji. “But for me, more than my brother, my coaches who taught me starting from holding the rackets to the technical aspect of the game are my main supporters.”

The childhood friends who go to the same school will represent the country at the 6th Children of Asia International Sports Games in Russia in July.

Taking the lead role in grooming the two for the competition is a JICA volunteer, Fumika Miura. The head coach who spearheaded the selection of the players said that Sonam and Leki are improving by the day.

“The potential of the Bhutanese players are much more than what I expected when I first came here,” said Fumika Miura. “Bhutanese are physically strong. They have the interest to learn and are very fast learners.”

Fumika Miura said that although players are improving, lack of international game experience is their biggest weakness. “Coaching is one thing, but game exposure is an essential part of the development.”

The two players have been practicing everyday since the beginning of the month. Fumika Miura said that in order to give them a feel of a real competition, frequent matches between senior national players are being conducted.

“More than just a physical game, table tennis requires mental stamina and strength,” said Leki Dorji. “We will practice religiously and hopefully, we might bring home at least a bronze medal from the competition.”

Younten Tshedup