A reply on Twitter to the daily Marca put Galia Dvorak (Kiev, 1988) on the radar. My knowledge about table tennis is scarce, so I was impressed by her extensive sports curriculum and what she displayed in that tweet: “7 times champion of Spain, 4 times Olympian, more than 20 years in the national team.” What did not surprise me was the reason for the message: a news item in which she was described as the “Ukrainian with a Spanish passport”.
Daughter of a couple of table tennis players in the USSR who moved from Ukraine to Spain to continue their sports careers, Galia Dvorak grew up moving between several cities, until they settled permanently in Mataró, where she grew up and now, with 33 years still living. Dedication to ping pong came from the family, which has not gone bad at all. Everything that responded to Marca and more make up an enviable record whose latest milestone has been his fourth consecutive participation in the Olympic Games, in this case those in Tokyo. As an anecdote, there he had a viral moment for a ping pong match against Pau Gasol, of whom he says that “if he wanted to, he could play at a decent level because he has good technique.”
Off the courts, she has always shown a commitment against racism and especially in the defense of gender equality, participating until recently in institutions such as the European Table Tennis Union. In this new interview for ‘Spain is not (only) white’ We talked to her about her various migrations when she was little, her extensive sports career, the defense of equality and the possibility of starting a political life when she decides to leave the ping pong paddles.
With your mother and father having careers as professional players, it makes a lot of sense that you would end up being a table tennis player as well. However, at some point was this sport not your priority?
He hasn’t been, maybe until he was 23 or 24, when he had already been to the Olympics. I played table tennis because my parents made me. They were immigrants from the USSR, they knew how to play ping pong and that’s what they taught me. I hated it. When I was little I didn’t like her at all, but she was a very competitive girl and she wanted to win. He trained for many hours, but he did not enjoy it at all.
When I had the opportunity to do other things, like finishing my degree and working for a summer, I told myself that I would rather play ping pong. And obviously the results accompanied. Also being a woman there were many more possibilities of being a professional, although when I started playing I hardly knew women who were professionals and lived exclusively from it. It is also true that I began to have friends and other people from within the world who made me feel comfortable, because at the end of my childhood I had always been alone, training with my parents, and I did not like that very much.
You have always been professionally dedicated to professional table tennis, and at the same time you have never neglected studies. Is it easy to maintain that balance?
No, it is not easy at all. Table tennis is a very difficult sport to earn a living. You know that if you get to the top you can live on it, but for a few years, and you are not going to get rich either. My parents instilled in me a lot the discipline of not wasting time and studying. At the age of 18 I had to choose whether to dedicate myself professionally in Germany and train in a super professional club, or to stay here and study for a career. I stayed and they were hard years because I was studying the career almost at full time and training twice a day, five or six hours, and trying to have a social life. He slept four or five hours because he wanted to do everything. But I chose a career that is not ultra-demanding, Business, and the college was close to where I trained, so I didn’t waste a lot of time on transportation and stuff. I had a good time.
Since the seven years you started playing you have not stopped. What is the best and the worst in the world of table tennis?
The worst thing I’ll tell you quickly: the elitism that is created among the players, the kind that if I’m super good, I don’t talk to those who are worse. It happens in regional leagues and in the international scene. And I don’t like it very much.
And the best part is that you can have the best of both worlds. It is an individual sport, but at the same time in Europe we have a lot of club culture. There are national leagues where you compete in teams, in a system similar to Davis Cup, and then you do have teammates. There are other individual sports in which it is a lonely path, with your sparring or your coaches and that’s it, but in table tennis there is a lot of club culture and training groups.
The Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games were the fourth in which you have participated. How is the process of getting to the Olympics lived?
You live badly. At least I, who am a good player, but always on the edge, who does not qualify and is already thinking about her medal. I have always lived it very badly, with nightmares and nervous because of course, in the end you are playing a lot, also financially. You depend a lot on going or not going: the scholarships, the prestige and the status that being an Olympian gives you in order to sign for clubs, get sponsorships and such. You know it changes you a lot to get to the Olympics. It is bad to say it, but there are times when I even hate the Games, because in the end it is still just another competition.
In addition, my path was somewhat different, because the first Games, in Beijing, I was a bit by chance, I was super young and it was unexpected. From there, I felt compelled. If I have gone with 20 years, without being in the best moment of my career, I saw that not qualifying in London or Rio was wrong. It was already added pressure.
This pressure that you speak of is closely linked to the issue of mental health. Is this about in the world of table tennis?
In general, professional sports in recent years have been changing a lot and fast, they talk about things that four or five years ago they did not talk about. In the end, ordinary people admire professional athletes for values such as sacrifice and talent, but the life of the elite athlete also has super negative things, such as pressure or always showing. There are quite a few players who have talked about pressure, anxiety and those issues. I think about it and five years ago it was impossible. In the answers, it might be said that you are a loser or that we all have pressure. Instead, now my feeling is that the generation a little younger than me is more educated on these issues.
In summer, a piece of news in Marca described you as the “Ukrainian with a Spanish passport”, to which you responded with all your achievements with the Spanish team and telling you that you have been here all your life. How many times have you been asked where you are from?
¡Phew! So many. “Where are you from? I’m from Mataró. Yeah, but where are you from? From Mataró, Barcelona, Catalunya. Yeah, but this name… ”. Many times and in all possible contexts, it is something that you do not get rid of. When you think that it is already outdated and normalized, they come up with the same thing. I am super proud of my roots, I go to Ukraine and I love it, but it annoys me that they always draw my origins, that if the athlete of Ukrainian origin or the girl born in Kiev, but they do not say the athlete of Extremadura origin. It bothers me. I try to be vindictive with this issue because also my two teammates were born here, and being of Asian origin they find the same thing but multiplied by ten, because physically they are not white like me.
In Spain there are currently about 12,600 federated players. What is missing in Spain for table tennis to grow?
I think it is a bit linked to the fact that it is a fairly elitist sport in the sense that, for example, a nonsense that I see on Twitter is that there are many players who play in the clubs who ask please that it be called table tennis, because it is a sport that is super difficult. It is true that it is a sport that if you want to practice it well it is a whole world
But it is true that ping pong is a sport that almost everyone has been in contact with at some time. Everyone has played in a friend’s garage, on a campsite, in the park, and it is also a very popular sport. This summer, at the Games, the tables were always busy, you had to queue to play ping pong because people like it.
I think that the federations would lack a bit to take advantage of it and learn from paddle tennis, where you book, you show up there with your Decathlon racket and play. I know a lot of people who play paddle tennis, but no one is enrolled in a club or receives classes. We would have to do the same, popularize it among the grassroots, with people who can have fun and, once you have those people hooked there, there will be another who joins a club or who will dedicate themselves to it in a more serious way. But the federations forget about all the recreational part when they could offer competitions, events, leagues for players who do not want to train or anything, just have a good time.
You are on the board of directors of the European Table Tennis Union. What work do you do there?
I have not presented myself again, my term is over, but I have been and was the president of the Athletes Commission. Being on the board of directors, I had the right to vote and dealt with player relations. She was also involved in the Gender Equality Commission, obviously.
Something I insisted on is that in Europe we have competitions that are at the same time and that boys and girls play, but historically girls always have the worst hours. If anyone plays at nine in the morning, it’s always the girls. So it was important to oblige, by regulation, to take turns: one day the girls play first, the next day the boys. Or for example, when I learned about the statistics of the coaches, well, a little to force the Federation to have specific courses and aids so that the number of female coaches grows, because it cannot be that they represent 5 or 10 percent of the total.
There is already a history of athletes who end up entering politics. More if, as is your case, you speak out on social issues. Have you ever been asked to go into politics?
They have never proposed to me. I look a little young to think about politics, but I think I would not do it badly. Yes, they have told me at times that I have the wood for politics, because I measure what I say and what I do a lot, I always have a plan because I am a bit cynical in that regard. And then also even when someone is an infinite jerk, I respond in another way, like saying that they have to improve their communication skills. I could do it well, but they haven’t proposed it to me yet.
In other words, if they proposed it to you, you would cheer up.
I would think about it, because I think the world of politics has to be exhausting. But in the end, being there, surely despite all the bureaucracy you can improve and do things so that they continue to evolve towards the better. Sure you can, although I know it would not be to get there and now, equality.
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“It annoys me that they always take me out like the athlete of Ukrainian origin”