On April 10, 1971, members of the US Table Tennis team made a historic trip to China to play ping pong, a significant step in thawing the icy relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The first official American delegation to set foot in China since 1949 was so successful it prompted one member of the American team to say, “The people are just like us. They are real, they’re genuine, they got feelings.”
Ten months later, President Nixon visited the PRC, and two months later, Mao Zedong came to the United States.
Today, the so-called ping pong diplomacy of the 1970s has yielded to ping pong capitalism of the 21st century. As this New York Times article points out, China has been absolutely dominant in ping pong at the Olympics, winning 28 of the 32 gold medals up for grabs since the sports debut in 1988. As national sports bodies note their lack of world-class table tennis players, as well as the glut of very talented table tennis athletes in China, there has been a definite flow of table tennis talent from China (where the supply is) to other countries (where the demand is).
The Times also stated that of the 172 ping pong players at the Rio Olympics this past August, at least 44 were born in China. Of that 44, only 6 of them represented China. At the Rio Olympics, Chinese-born players represented such countries as Australia, the Congo, France, Qatar, Slovakia, Sweden and Turkey.
Liu Guoliang, the head coach of the Chinese national table tennis team, said that this is normal. “There are a lot of Chinese talents and the competition is intense. Some have difficulties in putting on the national uniform. So in order for them to realize their dreams, they would want to represent other countries.”
According to the Times article, this trend became visible in Europe in the 1980s, when Ding Yi moved to Europe to represent Austria. As Massimo Constantini of the Italian team said after he lost to Ding in a match prior to the 1988 Olympics, “We were shocked, actually, to be playing against someone Chinese.”
Renowned political scientist, Joseph Nye, calls it soft power, the means of a nation to influence and attract by means other than coercion. And while China increased its global appeal thanks to the 2008 Summer Olympics, and is investing heavily in the infrastructure of other countries, for example, it’s still a challenge, as Nye states below:
China has been investing billions of dollars to improve its soft power. (But) soft power is not something that can solely be produced by governments, it comes through civil society. China is not going to have the soft power that the U.S. has. Its generating of propaganda does not bring strong credibility.
So maybe it’s through sports, again, where China makes inroads in its attempts to make friends. Is it 1972 again? Is ping pong China’s path to our hearts?
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.
On Sunday, May 1, during the long break in Japan known as Golden Week, I took a short bicycle ride to Komazawa Olympic Park, and walk where 1964 Olympians walked. The Park is a collection of venues: Komazawa Gymnasium where Japan won 5 of 16 total gold medals just in wrestling, Komazawa Hockey Field where India beat Pakistan in a memorable finals between two field hockey blood rivals, Komazawa Stadium where soccer preliminary matches were played, and Komazawa Volleyball Courts where Japan’s famed women’s volleyball team mowed through the competition until they won gold at a different venue.
On that day, thousands of people were enjoying unseasonably warm weather under clear, blue skies. The tracks around the park were filled with runners. The gymnasium was hosting a local table tennis tournament, and the stadium was prepping for the third day of the four-day Tokyo U-14 International Youth Football Tournament.
In the plaza between the various Komazawa venues, hundreds were enjoying the weather with great food and drink. I was pleasantly surprised to find draft Seattle Pike IPA. While enjoying the cold beer on the hot day, surrounded by hundreds of people loving the day, I realized that Japan in the 1960s made great decisions in planning for the 1964 Olympics. I had a similar revelation earlier when I visited the National Gymnasium months earlier. So much of what was built for those Summer Games are a part of the everyday life of the Japanese.
Japan built a fantastic legacy for 1964. What legacy will Japan begin in 2020?