Sarah Hanffou: Rallying for the greater good

Sarah Hanffou during the African Top 16 in Tunis in February 2020. (Photo by IFFT)
Sarah Hanffou during the African Top 16 in Tunis in February 2020. (Photo by IFFT)

The French-Cameroonese table tennis player, Sarah Hanffou is set for a busy year as she juggles training for a second Olympics with a full-time job as a lawyer and working with her charity, Ping Sans Frontières. 

“It’s strange to say it but I think that if I hadn’t had the organisation, I wouldn’t be going to the Olympics, and vice versa.”

Sarah Hanffou combines life as a full-time lawyer with her career as an Olympic table tennis player and the charitable projects she undertakes with her nonprofit, Ping Sans Frontières (Borderless ping).

And this year, there is even more pressure on her shoulders as she prepares for her second Olympics, the Tokyo 2020 Games that will take place in 2021.

The 2019 African Games silver medallist has just been welcomed into the French Development Agency (AFD) and a Paris 2024 incubator, with a project that aims to promote table tennis and provide after-school homework support in Takoradi, Ghana.

With so much going on, Hanffou has had to become an expert at scheduling. But that’s not a problem for her.

“I’m not particularly skilled or talented, even when it comes to table tennis. But I do have one special skill: I am a hard worker. I can almost tell you my plan for every day up to the Games," she told Tokyo2020. "From 5 am until 10 pm, my days are fully booked. There’s zero room for improvisation.”

PSF changed the meaning I wanted to give to my life

The early days of Ping Sans Frontières

In 2006, when Hanffou was 20, she flew to Niamey in Nigeria as part of the French team. There she met a group of Nigerian athletes from the organisation Athlètes du monde, chaired by Jean Galfione, the Atlanta 1996 Olympic pole vault champion.

“The national team were playing table tennis by the side of the road with a net with holes in it," Hanffou remembered. "It was like an electric shock for me.”

Back in France, she began collecting equipment to donate to people who needed it most. And that was how Ping Sans Frontières (PSF) came to be.

With support from the International Table Tennis Federation, PSF has continued to grow and can now be found in 15 different countries, providing around a ton (907.185) of equipment every year.

“I couldn’t live without these projects now," she admitted. "I want to serve something bigger than me and it gives my life meaning.”

The organisation is now active around the world and is collaborating with Paris 2024 to offer young girls in Ghana greater access to sport.

The role of Paris 2024

As part of the legacy and impact of the Games, Paris 2024 and the AFD launched an incubator project. A group of 24 athletes and entrepreneurs with social and environmental projects in France and Africa were offered support from Paris 2024 in the areas of marketing, communication and task management. Hanffou was one of those selected.

“We want to target all the city’s public schools and provide after-school table tennis classes and homework support, two to three times per week,” she said of the project.

But being a part of the incubator scheme means more than just receiving logistical support. It also gives Hanffou access to support from the other project holders, with whom she keeps in regular contact. It gives her the same feeling of fraternity that she finds in the charitable and sporting worlds.

“You know, you can feel quite lonely when you launch a project like that," she said. "But it’s wonderful to have a collective togetherness with other athletes who share your vision and values, and want their projects to have a positive impact.”

Gender equality and environmental concern

One of Hanffou's key aims is to use her projects to share her velues.

Gender equality is a cornerstone of the Takoradi project with the ethos stemming from a single statement:

"For women to have a different place in society, they have to have access to education. And education starts with little girls and is built up with boys," she explained, before adding: "I don’t call myself a feminist but I am convinced that we need to have gender equality. It’s not even up for debate, and we are far from it."

As well as gender equality, Hanffou is also very sensitive to environmental issues. PSF are working to reduce plastic consumption during competition and training. But with the project in Ghana, they are taking things one step further.

“We are going to create a company that will build table tennis tables that are 100 per cent made in Ghana, built in Takoradi with Ghanaian wood and local workers," she insisted. "The income will then be re-injected into the after-school project for Takoradi girls. Our goal is to create a virtuous spiral."

Hanffou’s aim is to develop a circular economy that drastically reduces the carbon footprint caused by the importation of table tennis tables from Europe or Asia, while also creating jobs for local people.

"If it was just because of me, I honestly don’t think I'd be going to the Olympics"

While travelling with Team France was the inspiration for creating PSF, the charity is now at the heart of her decision to train for a second Olympics. Her sporting career goes hand-in-hand with her charitable activities.

“Competing at the Olympics, continuing to change and aiming for new goals brings me a lot of things, but it also brings with it other things that are useful for PSF," she said. "I have met a lot of people, I am part of the Paris 2024 incubator and I have gained sponsorship as well. If it was just because of me, I honestly don’t think I would be going to the Olympic Games.”

Now 34, Hanffou admits that the life of a professional sportsperson doesn’t have the same appeal as before. She confides that sometimes she would “like to go on holiday or have a simple party with friends.”

But, even so, the table tennis star continues to perform at the highest level.

In addition to the silver medal she won at the 2019 African Games, she secured her spot for Tokyo by finishing third at the African Top 16 in February 2020 - right before the COVID-19 pandemic sent large amounts of the world into lockdown. The timing was a great relief for Hanffou, who was able to begin preparing for the Games without the pressure of qualifying still hanging over her.

“I’m lucky I was able to qualify before lockdown. It looks like it will be my last Games and I don’t know whether I’ll have the will, strength or even skill-level to compete at Paris 2024," she said. "So, yes, I’m enjoying the preparation and will do everything I can to be at my best for D-Day.”

Hanffou will start her Olympic campaign on 24 July. At the same time she turns out in Cameroonese colours in the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, Takoradi workers will be building tables for local children to play table tennis when the school year begins in September.