Perhaps it’s because ping-pong sounds vaguely Chinese that many assume that the game originated (like so many other things) in the Middle Kingdom. Or perhaps too because China so dominates the sport today; in the World Championships at the beginning of May, Chinese players won 17 of the 20 medals available. They have won most of the Olympic honours in the sport too, since it was first played in 1988 in Seoul.
But the reality is somewhat different. Ping-pong’s origins are murky but the game seems to have begun life about 130 years ago, as a spot of post-dinner japery (either amongst British army officers in India or semi-sozzled members of the English upper middle classes in the home counties, depending on who you ask).
Wiff-waff was often the preferred moniker for early aficionados. Ping-pong (a brand name registered by an equipment manufacturer) did not come into wider usage until later.
So how did China get so good at the game? Up until the 1950s, international success was concentrated in the rump of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The image is one of staid concentration, all Kaiser-Wilhelm moustaches and starch wing-collars. The game could be ponderously slow; the 1936 World Championships featured a single rally that took more than two hours to complete.
But ping-pong was heading further to the East. In a landmark moment in the 1950s, Hiroji Satoh of Japan covered his wooden racket in thick foam sponge rubber, which produced much more speed and spin than conventional pimpled rubber rackets, and started to win international competitions.
And then Chairman Mao decreed that table tennis should become China’s national game – and the sport was changed forever.
Mao’s interest in the game (he had a table at home for much of his life at the top) was partly a personal one. Ping-pong served a political purpose too – a 1971 tour by an American team proved a key icebreaker in Sino-US relations.
But the take-up of the sport was also intended to create revolutionary heroes and patriotic fervour. By 1959 it had produced China’s first ever world champion at any sport, Rong Guotan. In ping-pong, at least, Mao could dream of turning the West red too.
As a game that required little expense (which could be played with make-do equipment), it also fitted well into the country’s impoverished circumstances. Within a few years, there were at least 200 million part time players.
From this vast playing base, Chinese excellence was always bound to emerge. And, with the exception of a few years of Cultural Revolution distraction, as well as a brief period in the late 1980s when the Swedes (10,000 players nationally) had a purple patch, her mastery has been pretty complete.
To the extent that China is now worried. Players and spectators alike complain that without some worthier challengers, the game will lose some of its lustre.
What can be done? A few years ago the ruling body changed the ball (to make the game a little slower) but international rivals still failed to make much of an inroad. China also has a history of innovation, especially in introducing new techniques. The penholder-style bamboozled more orthodox players in the 1960s, for instance, and the swivel-wristed backhand (which sounds painful) emerged as a counter to the more recent period of Swedish effrontery.
With a national coaching system that churns out champions, China’s grip on the sport looks pretty impregnable. Most of the half-decent competition that does exist comes from Chinese nationals who have taken foreign citizenship. So, short of helping other nations to get to a similar standard of excellence, it is hard to see how China will get the competition it now desires.
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