From sporting gold to screen stardom: Les still nets the glittering prizes at 91

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Les D’Arcy checks his itinerary and laughs. He’s off to Sweden for a week to compete in the World Table Tennis Championships. After that, he returns to the UK, scooting down to London for the red carpet premiere of the new documentary film Ping Pong, in which he features prominently.

The following day there’s a TV interview to provide “for somebody or something or somewhere”. Then, finally, it’s back home to Wakefield. It’s the kind of breathless schedule that would exhaust most mere mortals.

But then Les D’Arcy is no ordinary individual. A retired schoolteacher who served in the RAF in the war, he’s a veteran table tennis champ – seven times world champion – with a hundredweight of medals to his name.

Globe-trotting has become a way of life via a sport that has taken him to Yokohama, Prague, Dublin, Melbourne and back again to Yorkshire. It’s impressive stuff – even more so when one considers his age. Les D’Arcy turned 91 in April.

He’s one of the oldest players on the over-80s circuit but not the oldest of those profiled in Ping Pong. That honour falls to 100-year-old Dorothy de Low from Australia. The other featured players are Sun Lao, 84, Ursula Bihl, 90, Inge Hermann, 90, Rune Forsberg, 86, Lisa Modlich, 86 and D’Arcy’s great friend Terry Donlan, the baby of the bunch at only 82.

Director Hugh Hartford charts the progress of this remarkable octet – who have racked up more than 700 years between them – as they compete in the 2009 championships in Inner Mongolia. And be in no doubt: this is a serious business. Age may have wearied them but the drive to win is ever-present.

“You lose one per cent [of ability] every year which means when, in my case, you’re 91 and a bit, you have lost 91 per cent according to the reckoning of the pundits,” says D’Arcy, heading off a question about his Peter Pan-like staying power. “You’re not quite as exuberant or optimistic as you might be when you’re in your twenties when you haven’t lost very much at all.

“I don’t know whether the losing percentage starts at a certain age but you do find some of the guys are exceptionally fit, and some of the ladies. There was one Japanese lady who I think was about 85 who’s just like a spring chicken, jumping up and down.”

D’Arcy began playing table tennis in 1982. Prior to that he was a keep-fit fanatic who bought a set of bar bells at 14 just as he started work as a labourer in a Wakefield chemical plant.

He had been a sickly child, battling pneumonia and, later, the poisonous effects of sulphur dioxide which, when inhaled, reacts with the liquid in the lungs to create acid. His conversion to weight-lifting came via Ronnie Walker, the legendary Wakefield weight-lifter who in the 1930s claimed to be Britain’s strongest man.

During the war D’Arcy was examined by an RAF medical officer and given a grim diagnosis. ‘You’ve got a valve in your heart that’s not working correctly. You won’t live to be 50,’ he was told in blunt military fashion.

“Well, I think he got it slightly wrong,” quips the teetotal, non-smoking D’Arcy. “I have an irregular heartbeat. But by doing exercise and living modestly, I’ve managed to circumvent [the problem] and prove the guy wrong.”

The film shows him working out at his local gym, astonishing other regulars who cannot believe their eyes as he performs a near-perfect snatch. Footage of his matches in China reveals a man replete with spectacles and hearing aid who is still very much a competitor. He wants to win.

“When you play an opponent there is quite a bit of psychology. If you get in a boxing ring and you start worrying about his physique, your body language is transmitted and it gives him a psychological advantage. So therefore when you get in the ring you stand up and look as fit as you can and as confident as you can, even though you may not feel it.

“When you’re playing table tennis, the same applies. You use everything that is legal and within the rules. On one occasion [I was playing] one young man who was 60 years younger than I. You’ve given him the physical advantages so if you have got the advantage of experience then obviously one would use that.”

Antagonistic on the court, he is fulsome in his praise of his fellow sportsmen. Rune Fosberg has been on the circuit almost as long as D’Arcy. They are frequent competitors and rivals. But neither man is a braggart. Forsberg keeps his medals in a cupboard. D’Arcy stores his in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag.

Interviewed for the film, Forsberg is told that D’Arcy practises three times a week. ‘I practise three-and-a-half times – three times one week and four times the next,’ replies the deadpan Swede.

D’Arcy laughs again. “He was playing mind games. He didn’t want to give me the advantage of playing more than he did. Rune Forsberg and myself, we’ve got our fun out of actually playing the game – winning, losing or whatever. He’s an absolutely superb human being. I think on the day of judgment if I had to be judged by somebody I’d prefer to be judged by him because he’s so humorous and philosophical. Great guy.”

With his quicksilver brain and youthful approach to the sport, D’Arcy is considered one of the genuine stars of the circuit. Asked what drives him on as he enters his 90s, his answer is simple.

“The alternative is obliteration. Unless you take up arms against it and do something, you more or less disintegrate. I’ve been round old folks’ homes and found people sitting there with a shawl about them, and they don’t move. This is the way to oblivion and you must do something about it.”

In Sheffield recently for a screening of Ping Pong at Doc/Fest, the city’s documentary film festiva, D’Arcy and Terry Donlan – the gutsy teammate who survived cancer to rise from his deathbed and compete after being given a week to live – found themselves performing new roles as they toured nursing homes motivating elderly residents to take up the sport.

“They said to me at the end of this coaching, ‘Right Les, can you now give ten tips for people to play table tennis?’ I got to about eight before I gave up. We don’t want to give them mental indigestion!

“I think I could motivate quite a few people to take up sport. This I would see as my role now: trying to get other people to enjoy the kind of fun that my friends and I have had. Terry and I could go round these nursing homes and in a short space of time really motivate people to get out of their chairs and start enjoying life. Who knows: there might be someone in a nursing home now who could be the next world champ.”

With that Les D’Arcy returns to packing for his trip. He has one more date in his diary: the day before the Ping Pong premiere he will be an Olympic Torch bearer in Market Harborough.

“I’m going to be struggling to do the 300m with the torch, really struggling. Usually. I would have been running, jumping, doing all sorts, full of exuberance [but] I’m suffering at the moment due to injuries, etcetera. I think the sulphur dioxide has caught up.

“There are 8,000 of us carrying the torch [but] there are probably eight million eligible to carry it. There are a lot of unsung heroes so it’s a privilege.”

If you see him, give a cheer.

Ping Pong (PG) is released on July 6.