The Paralympics are a revelation, an everyday reminder that our perceptions about what we can all physically accomplish is likely way below reality. Sometimes these reminders are so brash, they exceed our limited levels of experience and amaze us.
A case in point is Ibrahim Hamadtou of Egypt. When he was 10, he lost his arms in a train accident. Today, the 43-year-old table tennis player has astounded spectators at the Rio Paralympics, as well as new fans on the internet. In table tennis, the general classifications are for those who need to play in a sitting position, and those who can play in a standing position. Hamadtou can stand, but different from a majority of this opponents, he has no hands with which to hold the racquet.
Instead, he holds the ping pong paddle in his mouth, and adjusts his body, neck and head so quickly and gracefully that he can return a majority of the shots that come his way. He qualified for these Paralympics by finishing second in the 2016 African Championships. In his first Paralympics, he played two games, lost them both, and did not medal. But his skill in performing at the level he does without both arms is astounding.
His serve requires the use of his shoeless foot, where he grabs the ball from the floor, flips it up in the air, and sends the ball across the net with the table tennis raquet gripped tightly between his teeth. There are no coaches that teach this style. There are no YouTube videos he could consult. Although now there are, and they are videos of Hamadtou.
“I want to tell everybody that nothing is impossible, and everybody should work hard for what you love and what you think is good for yourself,” Hamadtou told the Paralympics website before the games began. “The disability is not in arms or legs, the disability is to not persevere in whatever you would like to do.”
The woman in red from Japan is ranked 6th in the world. The woman in blue from North Korea is ranked 27th.
Kasumi Ishikawa of Yamaguchi, Japan was born to play table tennis. Her parents were both competitive table tennis players, and her sister is a table tennis professional. Kim Song I is from North Korea, and likely a beneficiary of considerable state resources to get her to the top levels of her sport. And when you watch table tennis at this level, you can see it’s not just a leisure cruise game – it is indeed a high performance sport.
With balls zipping at top speeds of 100 kph on the surface the size of a dinner table for six, supreme hand-eye coordination and strength are needed to receive and send the tiny plastic ball careening to an exact spot on the table, despite the sharpest of angles and heaviest of spins.
Ishikawa raced out to a 9-3 lead in the first game before winning 11-7. She crushed Kim again in the second game by the same score. Ishikawa’s top-spin slams were often too much for Kim, whose returns often went long.
It was 6:30 am Japan time Monday morning when I got on the machine at the gym, switched on the monitor to see what sport NHK would be broadcasting live, and this was the match. I thought, wow, Japan vs North Korea – that’s a compelling match in any competition. After all, these two countries….well, they don’t like each other. At that point, as I started my run, Ishikawa and Kim were tied 2 games apiece, heading into match 5.
While Kim had an early lead, Ishikawa eventually climbed back and was able to win game 5. When she won, she wasn’t as happy as I expected. That’s when I learned you need to win 4 out 7, not 3 of 5. Both players talked with their coaches, girding themselves for one more, maybe two more games.
My work-out done, I had to leave the gym. But I had assumed that Ishikawa would go on to win. And most experts probably also thought Ishikawa would as well. Apparently the first two rounds in the Olympic singles table tennis tournament are played by lower ranked players, while the seeded players like Ishikawa get a bye in those rounds. In other words, while Kim had to fight her way to the third round, Ishikawa was playing her first match. And apparently, in other matches, the top seeds mowed down the competition, most of them winning 4 games to none. The top seeded woman, Ding Ning of China, won her third-round debut in only 11 minutes.
As I learned when I got home that night, the match between Ishikawa and Kim took an amazing 64 minutes. The contest was not only physically and mentally exhausting for the two athletes, it was a display of distinctively different styles. Ishikawa pummeled away with top-spin forehand smashes, while Kim endlessly defended with deft back-spin returns. Back and forth, back and forth they went – at times rallying for exquisitely long periods of nerve-wracking madness.
In the final game, with Kim leading 7-4, Ishikawa stopped playing. Her right leg was visibly cramping and Ishikawa was looking for an official stoppage of play, probably for treatment. The referee insisted she play on. However, the momentum had already switched to Kim, and Kim at this point was returning everything, and I mean everything. And the unforced errors for Ishikawa began to pile up.
In the end, after a suffocatingly tense hour, Song pulled off the upset, defeating Ichikawa four games to three: 7-11, 7-11, 11-9, 11-9, 9-11, 11-9, 11-8.
Outside of Japan and table tennis fans, I’m sure nobody noticed. But I did. And it was an amazing match.