On a Wednesday afternoon, Joe Fisher watches as kids unfurl nets and set up for the after-school table tennis program at Upper Musquodoboit Consolidated School in Nova Scotia. “You know how everyone has a passion?” he says. “This one is mine.”
It’s a passion that has helped make Fisher one of the world’s top table tennis officials. He’s served as an umpire in international tournaments in countries as distant as Sweden and Australia, and umpired the women’s semi-final at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
(Those who officiate matches in table tennis are called umpires. The term is not interchangeable with referees, who organize tournaments. So while a table tennis tournament might have 50 umpires, it will have only one referee.)
Yet ask Fisher about his proudest moments in the sport he’s been playing since childhood, and he speaks of local successes.
“Every one of the kids in the Musquodoboit Valley knows table tennis-and our local table tennis players may be some of our best athletes,” says the 54-year-old, an elementary school principal and award-winning math teacher. “That’s gratifying.”
Fisher started a community table tennis program when he first moved to the area from Halifax, and then began coaching the high school team. More than 30 years later, he’s still at it.
While Fisher helps the local kids hone their table tennis skills, he’s also involved at the highest levels of the sport. He was in China twice in the past year-at the China Open tournament in Shenzhen last August, and the World Team Championships in Guangzhou in February-to help evaluate umpires for the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
These were major events. The Guangzhou tournament featured over 1,000 players from 42 countries, and Fisher was part of a team of evaluators who kept a close eye on the Chinese umpires, assessing their performance and making recommendations to help the Chinese table tennis association decide which six would make the final cut to officiate at the Games.
“It was difficult. They’re expected to be next to perfect,” Fisher says.
Now that he’s done with his Olympic responsibilities, Fisher is turning his sights to developing a course for the International Table Tennis Federation that will help upgrade the skills of the world’s top umpires, as well as train the people who organize tournaments on working with disabled players.
Fisher enjoys striking a balance between his local and international commitments. When I go some place like China, it’s my personal choice to make a commitment at the highest level,” he says.
Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, editor and broadcaster who works for local and national media.