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Ooh! Aah! Yay! High-powered pingpong offers edge-of-chair excitement for Chinese

Gao Jun, now a member of Team USA, won a silver medal when she played for the Chinese team.
REUTERS/Joe Chan
Gao Jun, now a member of Team USA, won a silver medal when she played for the Chinese team.

BEIJING — For the next week, the Peking University Gymnasium is the world’s biggest and most spectacular rec room.

But you’ve never seen pingpong like this in your basement.

If you didn’t know better, when you walked into the compact, 7,600-seat arena, you’d figure some Ultimate Fighting Championship event was nigh. There was that sort of restless aggression among the gathered, a testosterone-driven buzz. The lights were boxing-ring bright. The chanting was constant, the same sort of call and response that visits basketball games here.

The Beijing Summer Olympics’ table tennis competition blasted off today. If you think Olympic table tennis is merely a cranked-up parlor game, you are sadly mistaken. In the Olympics, no matter where they are staged, table tennis is a broadband-swift show of pushing-it-to-the-hand-eye-coordination limit. It is a kaleidoscope of spinning, curving and dipping white balls, bright blue tables and sweaty players powerfully thwacking and softly poking.

But this is the land where the sport is king — or has been — so winning medals here will be like eating French food in Paris.

They say 10 million people play it seriously here and a perusal of Olympic rosters, including the United States, is an indicator. There is a diaspora of Chinese table tennis players spread across the globe.

Team USA has four players, three women and one man. All were born in China.

The actual contests aside, there is a special political dimension to the game. In a sense, it is table tennis as an institution that was the tiniest seed for these Games 26 years ago. Then, leveraging the power of sports, politics and diplomacy, U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese leaders determined pingpong was how the two giant superpowers could warm relations.

That opening has been transmogrified in such a way that China is now among the largest investors in the U.S. economy and Kobe Bryant is as famous as any Chinese table tennis player.

Pingpong fans take their games eight at a time
Still, to watch the Olympic table tennis competition in Beijing is like watching college football in Madison or hockey in Toronto. These folks are knowledgeable. Wednesday night in the Olympic team competition, there were eight tables on the gym floor, all cordoned off from one another, all the site for matches.

Eight at a time.

And, as the Chinese women waltzed through their rounds like a chainsaw through dumplings, the audience in the upper decks of the arena seemed to be able to watch two, three, four matches simultaneously.

“OOoooh, Aahhhh, YAAYYY!” was the pattern of customer satisfaction.

Since 1988, when table tennis became an Olympic sport, China’s athletes have won 16 of the 20 gold medals earned and 11 of the 20 silvers.

Among the silver medalists is Gao Jun, now 39. Despite her age, she is still the best player on Team USA.

She won her silver at the Barcelona Games in 1992 and then emigrated to the United States. She still often trains in China and remains a national celebrity. Wednesday, outside the Athletes’ Village here, Gao was interviewed by ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

But she could barely complete the taping session because fans kept approaching her for autographs.

She acknowledges that were she still competing in China, she wouldn’t be an Olympian. That a younger generation of players has surpassed her. But she also notes, she’s still got the stuff to win.

And a familiar fellow agrees. That’s Bob Fox, of St. Paul, the Metropolitan State professor, who is the U.S. table tennis team’s leader here. And Gao’s longtime friend.

Fox was positively excited Wednesday night after the three-member U.S. women’s team defeated the Netherlands. A win Thursday over Nigeria could mean the U.S. team would move into the bronze medal bracket, a great achievement for a trio of women whose ages range from 24 to 39, old by most table tennis standards.

Actually, even in China, the pipeline of young players might be declining, said Song Fei, editor at Table Tennis World, China’s leading publication for the sport.

“Table tennis is not in fashion,” he said. “Young boys, young girls, they like basketball. For the younger generation, it’s [soccer], rugby.”

That generation is attracted to the glitz of the NBA, Nike, LeBron and Kobe, Song said. Bryant, in particular, Song said, “represents fashion, power and the spirit of his game.”

But Wednesday night, that table tennis gym had all the fashion, power and spirit of any Big Ten gym as March Madness approaches. The crowd knows the Chinese are rolling along as expected. But they seem to have adopted the U.S. team as a second favorite.

That’s good because table tennis Hall of Famers like Gao will never be appreciated in the States as they are here. We’ll never chant and ooh and ahh when the rubber hits the tiny plastic ball and our parlor game becomes real sport, serious sports, a deep-seeded national pastime, a thread in this nation’s cultural fabric.

* * * *

Anoka’s Jake Deitchler lost his two matches and didn’t get the Greco-Roman medal he sought. Now it’s on to life as a college student with visions of the 2012 Olympics motivating him … Cyclist Kristin Armstrong, who won the Twin Cities-based Nature Valley Grand Prix in June, won the time-trial gold medal here Wednesday.

Nature  Valley race director David Laporte reports that the local bike race will be on TV on Versus at 1:30 p.m. Saturday … St. Paul rowers Micah Boyd and Matt Schnobrich are in the men’s eight finals Sunday.

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