Belgian Legend Calls Time, Jean-Michel Saive Announces International Retirement
Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
Jean-Michel Saive, the one and only
Photo By: Alex Lomaev - Butterfly
A career that gives him the status as one if the true legends of sport; now 46 years old, Belgium’s Jean-Michel Saive has decided to retire from international competitive play.
He made the announcement at a specially organised press conference held at the National Olympic Committee Headquarters in Brussels on Thursday 3rd December; the announcement was made in the presence of Pierre-Olivier Beckers, the President of the Belgian National Olympic Committee and Roland Delhoux, Chair of the Royal Belgian Table Tennis Federation.
However, he will continue to play for his club and to compete on the ITTF Legends Tour, in addition to giving exhibitions, an art in which he excels.
Baku, Decision Time “Before the European Games in June in Baku I thought that I could combine the committee work that I’ve been doing with playing”, said Jean-Michel Saive, who amongst several such roles is the President of the Athletes Commission for European National Olympic Committees.
“Trying to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games was very much in my mind but after Baku and then following my performances on the ITTF World Tour, I started to think again”, added Jean-Michel Saive. “If you are going to play in events like the Olympic Games you must be 200 per cent committed; it can’t be part time.”
Dilemma It was a dilemma for Jean-Michel Saive; playing in an eighth consecutive Olympic Games would have put him in a category that would have been special in the whole Olympic movement not just the table tennis events.
“What if I played well and qualified, I could well be taking the place of a younger player”, added Jean-Michel Saive. “Throughout the summer I kept thinking about retirement from international play, it kept tossing and turning in my mind; now after several months of thought, I’m sure, really I have peace of mind with the decision.”
An international career closes, it is a career that is not just one of a plethora of titles; it is much more.
Mediocrity to Major Force Alongside, younger brother Philippe Saive, he lifted Belgium from mediocrity to a major force on the global scene.
In 1983, only 13 years old at the time, he was very much the fourth player in a Belgian team at the World Championships in Tokyo. He played alongside Thierry Cabrera, Remo de Prophetis and Didier Leroy.
Under the captaincy of André Damman, he was selected for just one fixture in the Men’s Team event, the last when the result was purely academic. Belgium finished in 34th place.
Nearly Two Decades Later Just under two decades later at the World Championships in Osaka in 2001, led by Jean-Michel Saive, Belgium finished in second place behind the mighty China.
A country of some 10 million inhabitants had a world class team.
Host of Titles In the intervening years Jean-Michel Saive enjoyed a host of successes; notably being the Men’s Singles runner up at the World Championships in Gothenburg in 1993 and then the following year winning the Europe Top 12 in Arezzo and in Birmingham crowned European champion.
Both were outstanding performances and both in an era when the balance of power in the male table tennis world had shifted from Asia to Europe; we did not realise it at the time but it was a golden age.
World Ranking Equally during that period, in 1994 and 1995 he spent 515 days in the no.1 spot on the World Rankings and regained the position in 1996 after winning his first Men’s Singles Qatar Open title.
He was to win again in Qatar in 2002.
Appearances There are many more successes that can be chronicled.
Notably he has appeared in a record 24 World Championships and if the present system was in operation where the individual events and team events alternate on an annual basis, the number would have been many more.
During the career of Jean-Michel Saive, prior to 1999, the World Championships were held on a biennial basis and in 2002 there was no such event.
A tribute to Jean-Michel Saive, the Peoples' Champion
Olympic Games Likewise, the fact that he competed on the very first occasion that the table tennis appeared in the OIympic Games in Seoul in 1988 and has been present at all six gatherings since that date is a remarkable record.
Furthermore, if you add the fact that he became the first player from foreign shores to win the Men’s Singles title at the China Open when he succeeded in 1993, the list of success is quite stunning. Victory on Chinese soil and in the hotbed of table tennis, he became as popular and respected as in his native Belgium.
There are few players who in the past 30 years have entertained the crowds more than Jean-Michel Saive; raised in an era when a favourite practice was to play forehands all the time, the result has been that high top spin defensive play from the outer reaches of the court has been his forte.
The roar from deep in the throat when such a point is won is one of the traits of Jean-Michel Saive that is embedded in the mind.
Humble However, there is much more to Jean-Michel Saive than just being a sportsman.
He is a man for the people; always he has time to talk to those who support him, those who admire him, always in a most humble fashion.
Statesman It is in now in this respect that the future resides for Jean-Michel Saive.
He is highly respected not only for his achievements but for his dedication to sport; always he has upheld the highest values, play hard, play fairly, be gracious whether in victory or defeat.
A Mild Surprise “The announcement that Jean-Michel Saive will retire from active competition in table tennis did surprise me a bit but I was not shocked; I thought that Jean-Michel would compete until his last day in this world”, was the reaction of Adham Sharara, Chair and Honorary President of the International Table Tennis Federation who is one of many who holds Jean-Michel Saive in high esteem.
“In 2008, at the Beijing Olympic Games, I expected him to announce his retirement, there were rumours to that effect; so, I prepared a nice retirement gift for him”, added Adham Sharara. “To my surprise he told me that he will play at the following World Championships in 2009 in Tokyo; so, I have been carrying the retirement gift with me to each World Championships since and to the Olympic Games in London.”
The gift has covered some miles!
New Beginning “I never had the chance to give it to him, I gave up, and concluded that he will play forever”, continued Adham Sharara. “Now, that I heard this news, I will arrange to give him the gift sometime soon!”
Most certainly the gift is well earned. However, let us not look at the end of a career; it is the start of new challenges.
“I believe that Jean-Michel has a great opportunity for a career in sports management and, as he has successfully started, in sports leadership”, added Adham Sharara. “The world table tennis community is very proud of “our” Jean-Michel Saive and we will support him in all his endeavours.”
New endeavours but the competitive spirit remain, of that I am sure.
World Title “I have one message to Jean-Michel”, concluded Adham Sharara. “You now have to win the Veterans over 40 World Title to be equal to your brother Phil who proudly held this title; imagine two world titles in the same family!”
Philippe Saive won in Stockholm in 2012.
Great Deal to Offer The message from Adham Sharara is clear; Jean-Michel Saive has a great deal to offer sport.
He appreciates the values of competition; as a result, he already holds several distinguished offices which involve furthering the cause of sport. In that sphere he has a new career; one that will, no doubt be just as successful, as when he entered the sporting arenas of the world.
Unquestionably, Jean-Michel Saive will listen to all views; then from his vast experience make most valued judgements.
New Tournament Title A different emphasis in his sporting life beckons but I have one concern.
Each year in Flanders, Jacques Denys organises the Ostend Open; on the Saturday evening it is always the Ostend Masters but it is always “The Ostend Master with Jean-Michel Saive”.
Can we possibly have “The Ostend Masters without Jean-Michel Saive”?
Never Change Some things will never change and one other fact will never change, to the Belgian faithful it will always be “Jean-Mi, Jean-Mi, Jean-Mi, allez Jean-Mi, allez Jean-Mi” for ever.