The ping pong and the passion

Ignore the ignoramuses who say table tennis isn’t a real Olympic sport and behold Wang Hao: the greatest Olympian of 2008.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

So, who’s the greatest Olympian of 2008?

Many will say Usain Bolt, whose bolt to the finish line in the 100 metres caused a billion jaws to drop and confirmed him as the fastest man on Earth. Others might pick Pamela Jelimo, the 18-year-old Kenyan who won the women’s 800 metres in unflappable style. Then there’s Michael Phelps and his record-breaking eight gold medals. Claims that Phelps may have been propelled to his superhuman victory by his snazzy, skintight LZR Speedo suit, part-designed by NASA, look like sour grapes – most of us would need one of NASA’s spaceships to traverse the Water Cube in such Phelpsian speeds.

Well, you can keep your Bolts, Jelimos and Phelps’s – my Olympian hero of 2008 is Wang Hao, the 24-year-old, chubby-faced table tennis champ from Changchun in north-east China. Yesterday Wang and his Chinese team-mates – Ma Lin and Wang Liqin – beat the Germans 3-0 to win the gold in the men’s team table tennis. And Wang, ranked the no.1 ping-pong player in the world, oozed Olympianism. He hasn’t only become the best at his sport; he has changed it, introducing new moves, speeds, spins and tactics that have forced his opponents to up their game or get lost. If the Olympics are about combining drive and determination to soar to superiority, then Wang’s your man.

I know. There are some people who say table tennis is not a proper Olympic sport. These people are called idiots. I’m with you on beach volleyball, that ‘sport’ for American women too bulky to pursue their real dream of being prom queens. I have about as much interest in dressage as the other six billion people who were not born with a silver spoon in their mouths or a horse called Jonty in their backyards: that is, zero. (Any event in which a competitor, talking about a horse called ‘Pop Art’, can say things like ‘he did some great piaffe and passage’ clearly doesn’t belong in the Olympics.) (1) I could even take or leave a lot of the gymnastics, especially the prancing about on the floor, which puts one in mind of Mad Lizzie from TV AM more than it does of Athena or Apollo.

But table tennis is different. Just because it has a reputation as a game played by spotty sixth formers in sweaty common rooms or patients in mental asylums – and just because, where boxing has the Rocky movies and football has Escape to Victory, table tennis’s only celluloid outing was in last year’s bizarre Hollywood comedy Balls of Fury in which the Chinese trainers said things like ‘less talkie-talkie, more ping pong’ (2) – don’t let that pollute your perceptions. Table tennis, introduced to the Olympics in Seoul in 1988, is the very distillation of the sporting spirit. It is competition condensed, and thus intensified, around a ‘court’ measuring a mere 2.74 metres by 1.5 metres. It is sport’s truest and purest stand-off, in which two men, standing not three metres from one another, must outwit, out-speed and out-bat each other to glorious victory.

It is the compactness of table tennis, the fact that it is played on a table (yes, ha-bloody-ha), which heightens its speed and mercilessness. It is so much more intimate than the other great competitive sports. In football you’re part of a team whose goal is to demolish the other team, a gang of 11 men who, for 90 minutes at least, are mere faceless, nameless opponents in different-coloured jerseys. In the sprint you look straight ahead the whole time, knowing (or caring) little about your opponents’ struggle in parallel lanes. Even in tennis proper, you are faraway enough from your opponent to imagine that he is little more than a dullard in Fred Perry shorts who deserves to be destroyed (and let’s face it, he probably is).

But in table tennis, across the 2.7 metres of green Masonite board layered with an anti-friction coating, you can see your opponent’s every nervous flicker, bead of sweat, his pain when he fails to return your serve or his joy when he backhands you into oblivion. The table calls for speed and agility, if a player is to have any hope of keeping the ball in his opponent’s 1.4 metre by 1.5 metre square, and it demands the sort of unforgiving, unapologetic attitude to one’s opponent that separates the Olympians from the also-rans. If sport in general, in Orwell’s words, is ‘war minus the guns’, then table tennis is a knife-fight minus the knives.

Wang Hao preparing to
execute a backhand return

Probably the most irritating thing for ping-pong players – including part-time, post-pub players like me who bizarrely think it is acceptable to play this serious sport for fun – is hearing people compare table tennis to tennis proper. Some people think table tennis is for people too lazy to play real tennis. Actually it’s for people who recognise that tennis is a slow, sluggish sport for musclebound losers and who far prefer sport to be fast, furious, frenetic and frequently heart-breaking. Jasna Reed, the great female table tennis player who has played for both the Yugoslav and American national teams, once said that table tennis is ‘more like boxing than tennis’ (3). So true. In its intensity, closeness, quickfire rounds, lightness of foot and deadliness of hand, table tennis is really the sport for people not big enough to box. That might be why its star players have boxing-style monikers: Wang Hao is ‘Hurricane Hao’; his team-mates are Ma ‘King of Spin’ Lin and Wang ‘The Power’ Liqin. And no, unlike ‘Tiger Tim’ Henman, they are not being ironic. It is no coincidence that where tennis produces big lumbering bores who wouldn’t recognise humour if it was fired at them from a tennis-ball serving machine, table tennis produces the likes of Wang Hao, with his brown-tinted hair and cheeky ping pong moves, a hit with the ladies and the very opposite of the ‘machine men’ that are said to dominate Chinese sport (4).

Table tennis requires the concentration of chess, the agility of boxing, and the sportsman-on-the-edgeness of professional tug-of-war (as Jasna Reed said: ‘We’re all a little mental. Look at old movies. Where do they play table tennis in movies? In jails and mental hospitals.’) (5) And right now, Wang Hao has all of those skills – and more. As confirmed by yesterday’s Chinese victory in the men’s team table tennis, Wang has not only mastered the art of table tennis, he has rewritten many of its rules. And that is quite an achievement when you consider that table tennis, as Master Wong said in the one true line in Balls of Fury, is ‘like a fine, well-aged prostitute – it takes years to learn her tricks’ (6).

Wang is a pioneer of the penhold grip; that is, he holds his table tennis bat as one would hold a pen, between the thumb and forefinger. But unlike other penhold grippers, who are numerous in Asian championship table tennis, Wang has mastered the backhand – he is the first member of the Chinese national team to have been exclusively trained in the revolutionary reverse backhand move, which allows him to flummox and frustrate his opponents. Wang uses his penhold grip and backhand blast to ‘loop drive’ the ball over the net in response to his opponent’s serve, or simply as a counter-driving technique that can stop a rally dead. As one report says, so unorthodox is Wang’s move that it can ‘seriously upset opponents’ (7).

Indeed, some of the world’s top table tennis players are effectively having to develop anti-Wang moves. They are changing their game in order that they might counter the Wang-style loop drive and backhand surprise. This has only encouraged Wang to get better and better: ‘While players are getting increasingly used to his moves, Wang has also improved the consistency and power [of his moves] over the years.’ (8) It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, today, many table tennis players are the sporting equivalent of mosquitoes desperately trying to develop immunity against Wang’s powerful ping-pong-as-pesticide. Is that not the essence of Olympianism, though? To push oneself and one’s game to new levels in order to blow everyone else off the table?

It’s little wonder Wang Hao is a national hero in China, as big as Liu Xiang (the injured hurdler) and Yao Ming (the basketball icon). It isn’t simply because table tennis is a ‘cult’ forced on the Chinese people first by the gold-lusting Mao and now premier Hu Jintao (who says ping pong is his favourite sport). It is also because table tennis is a people’s sport. To do dressage you need a gay horse and a father who part owns Barings Bank; for gymnastics you need a gym; diving is popular in China today, yet as ping-pong shop owner Xiao Xing Guo said recently, ‘not everyone has access to a swimming pool’ (9). For table tennis, however, you simply need a table, a couple of bats and some balls – literal and metaphorical – and you’re away.

Wang’s revolutionary ping-ponging is not without its downsides. In investing so much training in the backhand move, he has compromised his forehand. The physical constraints of the penhold stroke combined with his backhand orientation means he has a slower recovery rate than other players. Soon, another player may come along who can fully exploit Wang’s weaknesses and precipitate his fall. But for chancing everything and sacrificing so much to be the best right now, Wang wins my vote as the greatest Olympian of 2008. As they said in Balls of Fury: ‘It is better to die like a tiger than to live like a pussy.’

Watch Wang Hao in the men’s singles table tennis finals, starting today.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) I had the horse sense to avoid dressage, Canada Leader-Post, 18 August 2008

(2) Balls of Fury, Internet Movie Database

(3) Badda-Ping! The Whacky World of Olympic Table Tennis, Washington Post, 20 March 2004

(4) See There is only one Olympic value: win, win, win, by Brendan O’Neill

(5) Badda-Ping! The Whacky World of Olympic Table Tennis, Washington Post, 20 March 2004

(6) Balls of Fury, Internet Movie Database

(7) Everybody in Beijing says Ha-o, Irish Times, 14 August 2008

(8) Wang Hao, Wikipedia

(9) Ping-pong has cult following in China, The Star, 18 August 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today