Sport rulers fear athletes risking health by inhaling toxic fumes

Updated: August 20, 2008, 2:05 AM ET

BEIJING -- Top table tennis players have long used "speed glue" to boost the power and spin of their shots, but the sport's rulers fear they could be risking their health by inhaling toxic fumes.

Just outside the Olympic table tennis stadium stands a white tent that players venture into before matches to prepare their bats, gluing a fresh rubber covering onto the wooden blade.

"You breathe it too much and you begin to lose your balance. It is a bit like a table tennis drug," said Peter Gardos, an Austrian coach.

A professional player in Japan collapsed while gluing his bat last year, falling into a coma for six days. Though there is no hard proof that glue was the cause, the case set alarm bells ringing for the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF).

It banned glues containing volatile organic compounds, known colloquially as speed glue, mandating a switch to water-based alternatives. The Beijing Games are the last time players will be exposed to the potentially harmful chemicals.

"If you glue once a week, or maybe even once a day, it would not have been so important. But they are gluing 10 times a day and then it could be a problem," said Claude Bergeret, ITTF vice president.

Behind this arcane rule change, seemingly with only players' health in mind, a debate has raged in the table tennis world.

Gas produced by the soon-to-be-outlawed chemicals seeps into the bat's rubber covering and helps to catapult balls struck by players -- hence the term speed glue. Critics charge that the glue ban is a veiled attempt to slow the rapid-fire sport.

"The ball will be slower and there won't be so much spin," said Crystal Xi Huang of the United States team.

"It will be tougher for players who block and attack, and easier for choppers," said Romania's Iulia Necula. Chop shots are the mainstay of defensive players and they make for long but sometimes tedious rallies.

The ITTF first decided on the speed glue ban in 2004 but held off on its implementation after players and equipment makers pleaded for time to adjust. From September, it will introduce a doping test for bats -- a device that can detect whether the illegal glue is present in the rubber covering.