Updated Thursday March 15, 2012 at 12:05 am (newest info at end of story)
Before most of the US woke up, a New York Times OpEd piece was thrashing its way through social media. A Goldman Sachs employee by the name of Greg Smith decided to resign from the firm in the most public way possible. His article called Goldman Sachs “toxic,” and said the firm’s long-term health was weak since employees treat their clients as meaningless with the sole pursuit of firm profit guiding every move.
By the time the market opened, “Goldman Sachs” and “Greg Smith” were trending on twtter, and millions had posted the article on facebook and through email.
Most of the article was not that shocking, plus if you’re leaving a job, odds are you weren’t in love with the place, but the article spread quickly. People questioned Smith and his motives, but what caught our eyes wasn’t that Goldman employees try to profit or that they call their clients muppets or that none of this has a good influence on the most junior employees, it was this:
My proudest moments in life — getting a full scholarship to go from South Africa to Stanford University, being selected as a Rhodes Scholar national finalist, winning a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. Goldman Sachs today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about achievement. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.
The Goldman-basher, Greg Smith’s proudest moments included a table tennis bronze medalist. We were hooked.
Table tennis is the world’s most played sport. It attracts politicians, athletes, musicians—people at the top of their field, people who thrive on competition.: everyone from Rafa Nadal to Warren Buffet, Mick Jagger to Vince Vaughn. And Greg Smith.
We first got a tip from Marcus Allison who said Smith used to play table tennis at the New York Table Tennis Federation in Chinatown. The recently closed establishment was a spot for quasi-serious players and learning. Robert Chen, the NYTTF owner confirmed that Smith was something of a club regular.
We approached Maccabi USA to try and get info about Smith, but they have no records. This lines up with him being from South Africa (as he says in the New York Times).
Table Tennis Nation also learned that Greg Smith was about an 1800 player “at best” using the USATT ranking system. This means Smith was capable of keeping up in matches, and was a decent player, but lacked any seriously competitive ability. Robert Chen confirmed Smith’s level of play and noted that Smith would come in to take lessons.
Business Insider followed up on our report and found an old USATT report about a Greg Smith who played in three tournaments between 1997 and 1998, but could not confirm it was the former Goldman employee.
Table Tennis Nation spoke with a Stanford Alumni “in-the-know” who confirmed Smith’s dates on the Palo Alto campus, where Smith graduated with a degree in economics in 2001 (this lined up with Smith saying in the OpEd piece that he spent 12 years at Goldman Sachs, which included a summer internship).
While the dates lined up, the events Smith played in raised some questions, namely why was the South African allowed to play in the US Nationals where US Citizenship is a requirement. The USATT told us that players with student visas are allowed to play in US Nationals, but not in Championship events. This means that Smith, who would have needed a student visa to attend Stanford while coming from South Africa, was able to play and improve his ranking, but could not have been named the National Champion.
His pre- and post-tournament rankings (1877 and 1983 respectively) line up with the reports we had out of New York, especially considering the earliest Allison and Chen could have seen Smith play was the summer of 2000 and Smith played no other serious table tennis tournaments between the end of Nationals in 98 and his start at Goldman in the summer of 2000.
Smith’s run at the 1998 Nationals was as impressive as anything we had learned about him at this point. Smith went 12-3 at the tournament and defeated Tim Boggan in a pretty tight match (14-21, 21-18, 21-18).
Boggan was one of the members of the US team that went to China in the early 1970s as part of “Ping Pong Diplomacy” which paved the way for Nixon to visit China and opened relations between China and the US.
Table Tennis Nation spoke to Boggan about the match with Smith. Boggan is known for keeping tabs on all the numbers, stats and info on the US table tennis scene.
When we spoke with Boggan, he had not read the article, but was intrigued by the story and when he heard the name Greg Smith he perked up and immediately remembered “a kid playing out of California” by that name (Stanford University is located in Palo Alto, California). We informed Boggan that he had in fact played Greg Smith at the 1998 Nationals and lost, to which he replied, “I lost to him?! Why the hell are we talking about this match then?” Unfortunately, Boggan did not have any more specifics on Smith’s game, technique or why he lost.
Table Tennis Nation presented all this new information to Steve Berger, a seven time US National Champion.
Berger never played Smith either in national competitions or at NYTTF, and had never heard another player speak about him. Berger was also at the 1998 Nationals and never crossed paths with Smith. Berger took a look at Greg Smith’s tournament history evaluated that Smith could not have won the bronze medal at the Maccabiah games as an adult.
According to Berger, Smith’s skill level (ranking) is not high enough to compete at that level. We believe that Smith won his Maccabiah bronze medal as a junior, as the level of skill of juniors is generally lower though the rating system is the same (the Maccabiah organization in Israel and the two Maccabi organizations from South Africa have not responded to requests for this article).
A report from the Stanford Daily backs up that Smith’s Maccabiah medals, won for South Africa, were prior to his time at Stanford, and confirms his appearance at Nationals and his participation in a collegiate team event (there are a few questions about the date on the article from the Stanford Daily, however we stand by the dates we have reported). There is additional info to support that the Maccabiah medal came in a team event, so individual skills could be less relevant depending on your team.
While Greg Smith was a decent ping pong player, it is clear his table tennis abilities are far below his public resignation skills. Seemingly everyone has a story about winning a table tennis championship at some point in their life, but Smith had the platform to make his front page news. What we learned is not that the world’s greatest table tennis talents are being lost to the lucrative world of investment banking, but that if you claim to be a top player in the world’s most played sport, there are millions who can refute that claim.
Either way, congratulations to Greg Smith for being the most well-known and most discussed table tennis player in the world, at least for today.
Update March 15, 12:05 am: We have now 100% confirmed that Greg Smith won the Bronze medal at the 1993 Maccabiah Games for team table tennis representing South Africa. Smith was also supposedly a top player for the whole country at the time. We have also learned that Greg Smith hates the term “ping pong” so we’ll stick to table tennis for any further updates. Smith also played in the 1997 Games but did not medal. According to our source, Greg Smith was talented and “kicked butt as a junior” but “was never going to be a ‘professional’ table tennis player.” The key to Smith’s game was an awesome serve, and doing schoolwork–remember this was a junior event–between his matches (which was clearly part of the “hard work, with no shortcuts” that Smith wrote about in the original OpEd).
Thank you to Marcus Allison, Robert Chen, USATT, Maccabi USA, Tim Boggan, Thomas Leclair/Raymond Matera, Steve Berger, and all the anonymous people who sent in tips, theories, and jokes.
If you have any info about Greg Smith (or you are Greg Smith) and his ping pong history, get in touch with Table Tennis Nation at email@example.com, (646) 481-8861, facebook.com/tabletennisnation, or twitter (@ttnation).
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Previously in Greg Smith coverage: