Olympics

08.04.12

Ping Pong's American Style: The Most Unifying Social Sport

China dominates competitive table tennis, but champion player Marty Reisman says it's American rec-room ping pong that has elevated the culture of the sport to something truly great.

Table tennis fans and those enthralled with the London games don’t know if the next time we’ll hear about American Olympic star Ariel Hsing playing table tennis will be in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro or in a college dorm. Either one will be acceptable to the American public, which has shifted its love of ping pong from high-level competition to the social aspect of the world’s most-played sport.

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Marty Reisman vs. Victor Barna in the 1949 English Open.

Table tennis has seen a renaissance of popularity over the last 20 years, but the sport remains divided. There are 8,000 registered tournament players who train and take the sport seriously, a group that Hsing is one extreme member of with a burn rate of $50,000 yearly for coaching in the pursuit of the gold medal. On the other side are the “basement players,” the 17 million Americans who play in rec rooms, bars, and dorms -- a group that a college-bound Hsing could find herself part of if she abandons her Olympic dream.

In the last two decades the competitive group of players has remained the same size while the casual side has grown dramatically. We find ourselves in a position where an American nearly upsetting a top Chinese player is shocking news, but celebrities playing ping pong at Hollywood after-parties and New York’s hottest bars has become commonplace, as evidenced by Susan Sarandon’s part ownership in SPiN, the most ultra-chic bar/restaurant ping pong parlor in the world, located in the Big Apple just off Park Avenue. Today, the casual, social players own the sport and the majority of its media coverage.

Top table tennis competition has grown unwatchable to most spectators due to paddles designed to shorten the length of points (“rallies”). The reliance on a tricky, un-returnable serve has moved the sport further from its classical roots where world-class players had rallies that lasted minutes, not seconds.

The United States has some of the best athletes in the world, but the version of table tennis that is inhabited by the serious players requires the correct choices of thousands of sets of rubber and imperceptible flicks of the wrist rather than athleticism. Unfortunately, it has become a game of deceit and deception, not the back-and-forth conversation that a great match should be.

While the serious players spend hundreds a year on their rackets, trying to give themselves tiny technological advantages, the basement players just want to have fun with the sport that they grew up playing and watching on Wide World of Sports—the longer the rally the better. Since basement players never learn to utilize the rubbers that have become the lifeblood of the competitive game, a match between two competent basement players can often be more interesting to spectators than an average match between two top players. Most people say that the average basement player spends more time picking the ball off the ground than playing on the table, but in reality this view of the sport is actually more relevant to the competitive game where rallies typically last less than four shots.

Back in the early 1900s the country became obsessed with the game of ping pong. By the middle of the twentieth century the United States had won 12 titles at the Table Tennis World Championships, and in 1936 Ruth Aarons became the only American to win a world singles table tennis title. As the sport returned to glory, spectators packed stadiums and crowded around tables to watch the world’s best—America’s best—compete.

In the last two decades the competitive group of players has remained the same size while the casual side has grown dramatically.

Today, the United States has too many other distractions, and other countries have seized our table tennis territory—most notably China, where Mao made table tennis the national sport, dedicated incredible resource to it, and engendered a dedication to the game by one hundred million people, an outcome never before seen in any sport, let alone table tennis.

But while the United States is no longer a leader in the competitive table tennis space, we are number one in the social ping pong sphere. Bars and clubs around the country have added table tennis tables and taken the game from the Olympics to a significantly sexier setting—a world where beautiful women in high heels compete, drink in hand, with eager young men sporting the latest fashions.

The social side of the sport is an incredible phenomenon that has captured the attention of politicians, celebrities, and the everyman alike. The sport is accessible, democratic, and readily available. Age, gender, and skill can all be irrelevant in this social world of table tennis, where simply picking up a paddle can be an opening line and the possibility of a deeper connection.