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‘Until I can’t stand I will be playing the game’, says Dimant

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Simon Dimant, a life-long “table-tennis addict” as he describes himself, speaks English with a quaint flourish. This is because he is of Latvian descent and English is his third language behind Russian and Latvian itself. He arrived in Johannesburg from Latvia - he still remembers the day, on 19 February 1991 - unable to speak a word of English, but slowly, his vocabulary expanded, and he began to understand the rules of English grammar.
by LUKE ALFRED | May 09, 2019

After being wined, dined, and shown off to his Johannesburg relatives in 1991, he began to chafe. It took him two weeks to become uncomfortable before he found the Wanderers Club, where they were still playing table-tennis at the time. 

Soon, he was playing in the leagues, and it wasn’t long before he was asked to umpire. He had found a home away from home. “I’ve got the table-tennis virus,” says Dimant. “It’s an addiction like you wouldn’t believe.”

Dimant, who will be representing South Africa at the European Maccabi Games in Budapest in July, was crazy for sport as a boy. “There wasn’t so much to do,” he says about growing up in Jūrmala the Latvian resort town facing the Gulf of Riga where Communist Party worthies used to have summer houses, “so we played sport - volleyball, football, ice-hockey. Even basketball I tried once when I was holidaying in Canada with relatives there.”

He fell in love with the sport at summer camp in Latvia as an 11 year-old, and discovered a talent he didn’t know he had, working his way into the final. “There was a table at camp and in the final, I lost,” he said. “After that, I became mad for the game. I’ve been mad for table-tennis for 58 years. Until I can’t stand, I will be playing the game.”

Finding and buying equipment in the post-World War II USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) wasn’t easy. “To buy rubber in the USSR was a story,” he says, but Dimant and his friends made do. They’d bribe those lucky enough to travel overseas to bring back paddles and nets, and they loved following the exploits of Andrzej Grubba, a champion Polish player who, they felt, represented them informally because he was Jewish. “He was such a player,” says Dimant. “He could play both left and right hand. We would watch videos when we could. 

“But he didn’t maintain. He was a smoker. He died of lung cancer. If he had maintained he could have played until he was in his forties - even more.”

Dimant wouldn’t have been able to keep up with Grubba as a player, but in honour of his hero has named a bat in his vast collection of more than 100 after him. “Yes,” says Dimant with a chuckle, “that one I call ‘Butterfly Andrzej Grubba all-round plus’! It’s a good bat! 

“What I’ve discovered is that you have to settle on a bat. That’s a failing of mine, because I have quite a collection - I’m an equipment junkie - and, really, you have to settle on a few bats not to make it so difficult for yourself.”

Dimant played in the last of his South African championships in the over-60 category in 2017, and won the veteran’s section in his group in those self-same championships in 2013. He thinks he’s playing some of the best table-tennis of his career, and challenges the younger bucks to see what he’s made of. 

He’s an awkward customer, he says, combining defence and attack in an unusual way. “It’s a combination,” he says. “I deal with an opponents’ attack with the backhand and, then, when I go to attack, I use the forehand.”

It will be lonely going to Budapest as the only member of the South African Maccabi table-tennis team, but Dimant has the ability to make friends wherever he goes. Table tennis has anchored him, and given him meaning. He talks about it as others would an elixir of youth, as something vital and life-giving. “It’s important to do something,” says the 69 year old electrical engineer who has made a career for himself in trade-utilities management. “Otherwise you have no self-respect. It’s important for confidence. 

“For me that something was table tennis.”

Not a member of a Johannesburg club, Dimant is a wanderer, restlessly heading off in pursuit of a game two or three times a week. He bemoans the “schlepp” into Westdene from his home in the northern suburbs, but you rather feel there’s an element of hollow moaning in the complaint. “Whenever I am down in the Western Cape, I make my way to the coloured area where I have friends,” he says. “They are the best table-tennis players in the country. They are only too happy to see me and we play. 

“Table-tennis has made me friends. Opened doors. Anywhere I see a table I am happy. Now I’m in the paper, I will get phone calls from my friends and they will tease me.”


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