The curious incident of Rajul Sheth and US Olympic table tennis players at Tokyo 2020

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The dominant athlete in American sports is black. Two of the four professional sports leagues in North America, the NBA and the NFL, have the highest percentage of black players. In 2020, 74.2% of NBA players and 57.5% of the NFL were African American, while only 13% of the American population is black. From black leagues to racially segregated to becoming the preeminent force in American athletics, their accomplishments are impressive not only to watch but to be in awe of how a community has transformed the sports landscape. American. (More sports news)

Interestingly, a very different community dominates American Table Tennis (TT). Contrary to the stereotype associated with all things computing and quantitative subjects, the six elite table tennis players chosen to represent the United States at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 are Asian Americans, and among them are two American Indians, Nikhil Kumar and Kanak. Jha. The other four are Americans of Chinese descent.

Nikhil Kumar and Kanak Jha are the pride of the Indian diaspora.

What is behind this anomaly? Four of the six players (the other two are former Chinese national team players who immigrated to the United States) were trained at a table tennis center in California’s San Francisco Bay Area – the Indian Community Center (ICC) in the town of Milpitas. At the heart of this story is the journey of an enterprising man: Rajul Sheth.

A national-level Indian table tennis player, who quit his job when his employer in Gujarat decided to dissolve the sport as part of the company’s privatization process, Sheth came to the United States in search of economic opportunities. However, his passion for table tennis took him from being a gas station attendant to being the founder of the table tennis mecca in the United States. Starting with two TT tables at a facility the ICC rented for after-school sports and kids’ camps in 2005, Sheth transformed it into a state-of-the-art, 30-plus table club. large in North America.

Sheth’s eye for talent led him to spot campers, some as young as five, at his summer camps. His persistence in driving parents out of Silicon Valley, mostly working-American couples of Asian descent, to convince them to bring their little TT players to play at the club, has paid off. He started regular TT training, competitions and leagues. To take these youngsters to the next level, Indian, Chinese and European TT coaches were flown in. Surviving with meager funds and talent, Rajul Sheth made the ICC an incubator for American table tennis, producing seven American Olympians and more than 70 domestic players. , completely transforming the American ping-pong.

Rajul Sheth, the man behind the scenes.

As economic historian Paul David wrote in his classic article Clio and the QWERTY economy, this is a classic example of how “one damn thing follows another”. Economists call it path dependence which he defines as “a sequence of economic changes is one of which important influences on the end result may be exerted by temporally distant events, including events dominated by random elements rather than by forces. systematic ”.

The document explains that the top letters of each keyboard are QWERTY, an arrangement that was put in place to prevent typewriter keys from getting stuck. Typewriters have become obsolete, and extensive testing has shown that an alternative called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK) works better, but the path dependency created the QWERTY lock. This can be largely attributed to the fact that typists were trained on the QWERTY keyboard and when computers began to replace typewriters, typists preferred what they were trained for.

Another example is the persistence of standard gauge rail tracks (1,435 meters apart) in places like the United States and the United Kingdom, in contrast to the wider and more efficient gauge (1,676 meters apart) each other) used in the Indian subcontinent. The story is that Roman chariots were pulled by two horses and to accommodate their rumps the wheels were spaced 1,435 meters apart. The practice continued in the use of horse-drawn carriages for transport and George Stephenson, the architect of the British Railways, continued this practice. So, what happened in ancient Rome constrains contemporary railroads!

Thus, if Rajul Sheth had not quit his job and moved to the United States and more precisely to Silicon Valley, if the majority of American schools (98% did not have one) had had a TT table, would not have had one. was from the fact that Silicon Valley has a large Asian American population of Asian descent familiar with TT, and if the ICC had not been built, today the US Olympic TT team would not have had six Asian Americans!

To borrow from this poignant film Masan – as the train passes, its reverberations can be felt by others – in a different place or even at a different time. Whether it’s the American TT team and the demise of brands like Palm and Blackberry, or the outdated colonial-era laws that risk-averse governments hate to change, path addiction touches many aspects of life. our daily life.

(Savita Patel is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She reports on geopolitics, technology, the environment, and the Indian diaspora. Sudipta Sarangi is a professor of economics at Virginia Tech. Her book The Economics of Small Things was recently published by Penguin India. Opinions are personal)


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