With nearly 300 athletes competing and 29 medals up for grabs, table tennis is one of the largest sports on the Paralympic programme this summer.
Table tennis has been in the Paralympics since the first event was held in Rome in 1960 - a continuation from the Stoke Mandeville Games, held between 1948 and 1952. And it is table tennis, not football, which enjoys the status of being the most popular Paralympic participation sport in the world.
One of the favourites for a medal in the table tennis events will be Dorset-born Arsenal supporter Will Bayley. The 24-year-old competes in the men’s class seven singles and is currently ranked No 1 in the world.
He is in great form going into the Paralympics having beaten Ukrainian Mikhaylo Popov in the final of the European Para Table Tennis Championships in Croatia back in November 2011. Popov was ranked world No 1 at the time and Bayley leapfrogged him as a result of this victory.
Bayley suffers from a rare congenital disorder called arthrogryposis, which has affected all four of his limbs. Will’s feet were splinted from birth and at just three months old he underwent his first operation. Many more reconstructive surgeries were to follow at the world-renowned Great Ormond Street Hospital. Sadly Will had to return there aged seven, having been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, where he underwent a six-month course of chemotherapy.
His remarkable rise to sporting success began when his grandma bought him his first table tennis table while he was recovering from cancer and he won his first medal in sport aged 11. He competed in his first Paralympics in 2008, aged 19, and the Gooner from Tunbridge Wells - but based at the Sheffield Institute of Sport - has achieved the kind of success between then and now that other competitors can only dream of.
You have been to a Paralympics before at Beijing in 2008. What was that experience like?
It was incredible to be part of such a massive event. I wasn’t a seeded player going into the tournament and was only ranked about 19 in the world. I got knocked out at the group stages, but that doesn’t stop me looking back on that event with massive pride. I was only 19 back then and I learnt a lot competing in Beijing and I think it will hold me in good stead this year.
Where does your interest in table tennis stem from?
I’ve played table tennis all my life really, encouraged by a very sporty family. I tried lots of different sports when I was young, but table tennis was the one which came most naturally to me and I just kept on playing. When I was recovering from the courses of chemotherapy I underwent to treat Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, it was a good sport to play as you could stand at a table and you could put in as much energy and effort as you could manage but it equally wasn’t too strenuous.
How did you become an Arsenal fan?
My dad supports Tottenham and when I was about two or three I learned that if I supported Arsenal, it would wind him up. So it all started off being a bit of a joke, but I’ve carried on following them ever since and they are my team now for sure. Most of my family support Spurs, so I’m definitely the odd one out!
Have you been to the Emirates before?
Many times, I was actually at the first ever game at the stadium - Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial against Ajax which was a great experience. It’s such a fantastic stadium - I still dream about being a mascot and leading the side out there, though sadly I might be a bit too old for that now!
Did you go to Highbury much?
Yes, quite a bit. My first visit was for a match against Wimbledon in 1995. We lost that game 3-1, which was a very disappointing debut for me so to speak. Ian Wright opened the scoring but Robbie Earle got two and Dean Holdsworth scored the other for them if memory serves me right. Luckily, I saw the Gunners win quite a few matches after that when I went along to Highbury.
What has been your highlight supporting Arsenal over the years?
For a supporter of my generation, indeed probably for lots more fans besides, my favourite Arsenal memory has to be watching the ‘Invincibles’ of 2003/2004. That side contained many of my favourite players like Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg and Patrick Vieira and it was a pleasure to see us go a whole season undefeated and win the league at White Hart Lane of all places. We played classic football all season long and thoroughly deserved the title.
Who is your favourite player of all time?
It has to be Dennis Bergkamp for me. I admire his vision and the type of goals that he scored throughout his career. Henry was another favourite of mine and it was great to see him back at Arsenal on loan, but Bergkamp still edges him for me as the best player I’ve ever had the privilege to see in action.