NZ's top table tennis player Takaimaania Ngata-Henare says she's been bullied and had her career sabotaged

NZ's top table tennis player Takaimaania Ngata-Henare says she's been bullied and had her career sabotaged
Photo credit: Getty

By Felicity Reid for RNZ

A top-ranked New Zealand table tennis player claims she's been bullied, had her career sabotaged and been ostracised by officials and on top of that is now facing repercussions after successfully taking on the sport's hierarchy.

Takaimaania Ngata-Henare's family took on Table Tennis New Zealand and won but her battle is far from over.

Ngata-Henare, 14, stands out in the New Zealand table tennis scene having won under-18, under-21 and women's national titles and is ranked sixth in the country.

Her family has no history in the sport but are committed to giving Ngata-Henare a future in the sport.

However, the fallout from a successful Sports Tribunal hearing and subsequent court action is lingering.

As a 12-year-old, Ngata-Henare won 28 straight games at an Under-15 national selection tournament to book a place on the New Zealand team for the Oceania Junior Championships in Tonga.

But a dispute about a "bullying" coach nearly ended her involvement in the tournament which was a qualifier for the World Cadet Challenge.

Takaimaania Ngata-Henare's family took on Table Tennis New Zealand.
Takaimaania Ngata-Henare's family took on Table Tennis New Zealand. Photo credit: RNZ / Supplied

A refusal to pay travel costs to Tonga for a coach, who Ngata-Henare's family claim had bullied her at a previous tournament over her choice of bat, led to Table Tennis New Zealand (TTNZ) removing Ngata-Henare from the team.

The matter ended up at the Sports Tribunal.

The Sports Tribunal ruled in Ngata-Henare's favour after finding the decision by TTNZ was unfair and ordered the governing body to reinstate her.

The Sports Tribunal found "TTNZ acted unreasonably in removing the Appellant [Ngata-Henare] from the team and failed to explore other solutions, including a suggestion by the TTNZ High Performance Convenor to meet with all parties to seek a resolution."

The Tribunal ruled there was a "failure [by TNNZ] of the obligation to follow a fair process" in selecting the team.

TTNZ were required to pay $2000 towards the family's legal costs.

Following the Sports Tribunal ruling Ngata-Henare's family took TTNZ to the Disputes Tribunal to claim compensation for the "hurt and humiliation" that the teenager had suffered.

During that hearing TTNZ offered Ngata-Henare a place in a national training camp and the Disputes Tribunal said the camp must take place by January 2020.

The camp is yet to happen with TTNZ citing Covid-19 for the delay although Ngata-Henare's family dispute that as being the reason and is demanding the matter be resolved and the issue is again before the courts.

Ngata-Henare won several medals at her first international tournament in Tonga and progressed to represent New Zealand at the World Cadet Challenge in Poland last October.

The chance to play on the world stage again is something that Ngata-Henare is striving for, but her grandmother Liane Henry said her granddaughter is being held back.

"As she started to rise that's when she became a threat to people and isolated," Henry said.

"When I started questioning things they didn't like it and they [Table Tennis New Zealand] squeezed even more and she was still winning and then they don't want her to go and represent so they try all these things to put the coach in that's been bullying so that we would not like it and dip out but we didn't and it just snowballed and snowballed it is unbelievable."

Bullying and bat tampering

Ngata-Henare's coach of two and a half years, Kevin Schick, said his charge is a quick learner with an unflappable temperament.

"She was very relaxed compared to other people. She didn't get as nervous," Schick said.

But adults and children have gone to extreme lengths to throw her off her game.

"We've had a lot of resistance wherever we've gone because Takai has broken the mould of what you expect from young people and a table tennis player," Schick said.

"She would beat people who expected to beat her and that quite often caused a lot of friction and when a 14-year-old girl starts beating people that have been playing all their life then there is a lot of resentment.

"There was extraordinary amounts of bullying from especially boys or elderly men who were a little bit resentful that a girl could play that well which was really disappointing to see."

In some places she plays it is worse than others.

"There will be a little group of them, a little crowd of other players that will come round and barrack and clap against her and this is very upsetting and very soul destroying [for her]," Schick said.

"They do a lot of intimidation and bullying as far as Takai goes and that is what she has had to put up with right from the word go."

It is not just words - it is also actions.

"At one tournament she had the rubber ripped off her bat, just before she was about to play, to prevent her playing in the final, that was very disturbing," Schick said.

It takes courage and commitment to stand up to the administrators.
It takes courage and commitment to stand up to the administrators. Photo credit: Getty

Court action and allegations of favouritism

The table tennis community in New Zealand is small, tight knit and competitive.

It takes courage and commitment to stand up to the administrators.

Schick said several athletes had taken legal action against TTNZ regarding selection decisions over the years, but he said only two had been successful.

Ngata-Henare was one of them.

"A lot of people have had respect for the position she has taken because so many people have been through this process where they've been disadvantaged and bullied over the years taken their issues to court and never won," Schick said.

"You used to hear about it overseas that the best players were never picked but that is quite true quite often the best players to represent New Zealand are never chosen because of these strong cultural and bullying tactics that are evident in administration throughout New Zealand."

Schick alleged TTNZ made team selections in the past based on the athletes' relationship with the organisation.

"People have been looked at more favourably because of their connections with Table Tennis New Zealand or somebody who has had a family member that had a connection with Table Tennis New Zealand rather than the person that has no connection with Table Tennis New Zealand and just met the criteria as the best player on merit."

Liane Henry said a lot of what her granddaughter has experienced is part of "attempts to push her out of the sport".

"They are all loyal to each other," Henry said of those running the game in New Zealand.

Table Tennis New Zealand chief executive Warren Ogilvie rejects claims of preferential treatment and players being excluded based on their background.

"I don't know where they are coming from and I don't know of any evidence," Ogilvie said.

"There is a diversity right across the whole sport in terms of cultures so selection is based on firstly eligibility, then ability and fulfilling performance criteria. Simple, three things.

"We are very strenuous to ensure that all the i's are dotted and all the t's are crossed that there is very clear policy and that the players understand what it is that they need to fulfil in order to be selected."

Ogilvie, who joined TTNZ this year, said claims of bullying have not been raised with the governing body.

Stand-off at Northland table tennis hall

As the only New Zealand representative in the region, Ngata-Henare had free reign of the Northland table tennis hall to practice as often as she wanted for three years.

She has now been locked out.

The board of Table Tennis Northland took away her key to the Whangārei facility and limited her to a single two-hour practice a week citing health and safety reasons.

However, Henry believed Table Tennis Northland's actions have been influenced by TTNZ.

"I think that when I punched back at TTNZ to get our court costs and held them accountable, because they said they were going to run a training camp for her and they failed to deliver, I took them back to court again and it all comes from that," Henry said.

"They're just trying to disadvantage the little girl and she just wants to play.

"They keep putting roadblocks and all she wants to do is get back into the stadium that she used to train at."

Schick said she was training four to five times a week before being shut out.

When the situation changed at the Table Tennis Northland hall, Ngata-Henare purchased her own table tennis table to set up at a local badminton hall and paid for swipe card access in a make-shift arrangement.

The teenager's successful Māori-themed gift wrap business, Māu Designz, helped fund it.

But she wants to return to her home association - where her successes are listed on an honours board.

Out of the top 40 New Zealand ranking women, Ngata-Henare is the only Māori woman to play table tennis at this level since Neti Traill in the 1960s and is from the same association.

Table Tennis Northland chairman James Morris said in a statement that Ngata-Henare continued to have access to club organised activities and training.

However, the rules have changed.

"In March this year the new committee changed the policy regarding key access and limited it to those committee members who run club activities.

"This policy was made for health and safety reasons and club security. Ordinary members do not have key access.

"Takaimaania is a talented young athlete and we encourage her to continue to take part in the opportunities that the club offers."

Before COVID-19 shut the borders, Ngata-Henare played a tournament in Australia in late January and has spent the rest of this year playing for titles around New Zealand.

She won against male players in grades beyond her years - including top two placings in under-18 and under-21 competitions.

However, when the world reopens Ngata-Henare wants to make another appearance at the world championships.