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Table tennis (aka Ping Pong) bounces back

Table Tennis champ Zhang YiningMaybe it was the film Balls of Fury (or maybe not) but Ping Pong is definitely back. The last time I played,  it was at a holiday resort and it was raining (obviously).

Last week, two time Olympic table tennis champion Zhang Yining came back from two sets down to beat defending champion Guo Yue for the women’s singles top honor. And millions of people tuned in.

The twenty-seven-year-old Zhang started playing table tennis at the age of 5 and at the age of 14, she joined the Chinese National Team. She has been holding the first place in the ITTF world women’s table tennis ranking from January 2003, an incredible achievement by any standard.

So what’s the difference between Ping-Pong and Table Tennis?  I went to the Olympic website to get the official facts. Last year, table tennis celebrated its 20th year as an Olympic sport! And that seems to be the big difference.

Ping-Pong is what you may think of as old-fashioned “family” entertainment played in a neighborhood rec room while Table Tennis, which has had its own World Championships since 1926 and been part of the Olympic Games since 1988, is undeniably, a Sport.

With over 40 million competitive players worldwide, Table Tennis, is sweeping the globe. It’s the world’s largest participation sport, and besides that cool 40 mill that are competitive, there are millions more just ping-ponging for fun.  Clearly, Ping-Pong has gone from a rainy-day basement past-time to a prime player on the world’s stage.

Ping-Pong started in England in the late 19th century as a refined, after-dinner substitute for lawn tennis. Back then the paddles were made of cigar-box lids and the balls were widdled from champagne corks. These days, players use advanced and specifically designed rubber-coated wooden and carbon-fiber rackets and a lightweight, hollow celluloid ball. Even the glue plays a part–certain glues applied to rackets create greater spin and speed, and certain glues that make the ball travel up to 20 mph faster are banned from the Games.

But it’s not just for fun or sport. Ping Pong has also played in a big part in international diplomacy.  An exchange of players from the United States and People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the 1970s marked a thaw in U.S.–China relations and paved the way to a visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon.

So how cool is Ping-Pong today? Well, a group of New York entrepreneurs  hope to open SPiN, a hip Table Tennis club by day and nightclub by night.

“A three-day event in June at Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel is being billed as the biggest baddest throwdown in the history of Table Tennis with a $100,000 purse.  The championship will be broadcast on ESPN in September and the event is sponsored by Bud Light. Can anyone say beer pong?

With a bit of a cool factor and anti-hero vibe organizers describe the Hardbat Classic:

“Table tennis is once again part of the cultural Zeitgeist, and we think this is the time to take the sport out of the basement and launch the largest challenge in the history of the sport.”

To see the real deal, check out Zhang playing in the recent World Table Tennis Championship.



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