Five-ring Circus

Like Regular Ping-Pong, With Concussions

In praise of doubles table tennis.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the Beijing Games.

Guo Yue and Zhang Yining at the Beijing Olympics

As the creator and producer of The Asian Basketball Show, The Asian Football Show, and The Asia Sport Show, I spent a large chunk of my life watching sports in China. Naturally, that meant an undue amount of table tennis, or, as us less highfalutin types call it, Ping-Pong. Despite being around the sport quite a bit, I remain unable to explain its appeal or, for that matter, to execute a spin serve.

One thing I do know is that I’ve always preferred doubles to singles. Doubles table tennis is so entertaining because it defies the laws of geometry. As anyone who’s played in a rec room fully understands, a Ping-Pong table simply isn’t big enough to accommodate four people. The key skill that every doubles team must master has nothing to do with shot-making or defense. Rather, it’s having the agility to get the hell out of the way of your partner.

In doubles table tennis, partners must alternate shots. That means the goal of any team is to sow confusion in the enemy—to make it so the player whose turn it is to hit has to get through his or her partner to do so. The highlight of a doubles match is when partners kick, trip, or smash into one another. I once saw a Malaysian duo knock heads so hard the match was delayed nearly half an hour. Also fun: when one player swings for the ball and hits his or her partner instead.

Sadly, at the Olympic level, the players are too accomplished for this to happen. Maybe it’s just as well, then, that doubles has been eliminated as an Olympic event. In its place this year is a team format pitting different countries against one another; just as in Davis Cup tennis, there’s only one doubles match involved. (I got a long explanation from the International Table Tennis Federation explaining the reasoning behind the switch, but it seems to boil down to ensuring that other nations besides China win some medals for a change.)

In search of my doubles fix, I tuned in to Sunday’s women’s team final. (You can watch it online here—fast-forward to around the 1 hour, 25 minute mark to see the doubles.) Unsurprisingly, China was the winner, devouring Singapore 3-0 for the gold. One reason that China is so strong doubleswise is that its players are quick enough to play side by side. The women’s team of Zhang Yi Ning and Guo Yue (ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world in singles) is a righty-lefty combo. The two move in unison with such precision that they’re seldom caught in a poor position. Most other teams, including Singapore, use a circular (or “stack”) formation, with one hitter stepping forward as the other circles back and away from the table. Against the Chinese, the stack toppled, with the women from Singapore forced to lunge futilely from side to side as Zhang and Guo lorded over the table.

Note that the Singapore duo of Wang Yue Gu and Li Jia Wei isn’t actually from Singapore—they’re both Chinese nationals who were recruited to play abroad. The $500,000 they’ll earn for delivering the island nation’s first medal since 1960 should ease the pain of losing. Since the Chinese—the ones who haven’t been exiled from the mainland, at least—are so much better than everyone else, doubles in particular can take on a metronomic feel. In the men’s gold medal doubles match, the German duo of Timo Ball and Christian Suss frustrated the Chinese pair of Wang Liqin and Wang Hao for a while with excellent returns and aggressive shots. But Wang and Wang soon began ruthlessly aiming at the player who had just hit the ball, leaving the Germans with far too much ground to cover.

Zhang and Guo and Wang and Wang are so far ahead of the pack because they’ve lived nothing but Ping-Pong their entire lives. Imagine the kid down your block who played every day in his basement, then multiply that by 100 billion. As is well known by now, China’s centralized sports system identifies players with talent from a young age and sends them away to train. Table-tennis players in particular live Spartan existences that make them robotically good. But the lifestyle they lead leaves little room for enjoying their success.

The expectation of unbroken Chinese success makes the sport’s stars unusually dour, even in victory. The only smile I saw crease the Chinese women’s faces came after Singapore was dispatched and the gold medal secured. Should anyone stumble, the repercussions will be great. As China Daily, Beijing’s English-language newspaper, opined, “With four gold medals on offer in China’s de facto national sport, table tennis, any man or woman who fails to live up to expectations on the blue tables will have to endure some degree of private, or public, humiliation.” Now go out there and have fun!

The Chinese have left little to chance in their quest for table-tennis glory. Think of the NBA banning Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, and Pau Gasol to ensure the United States a basketball gold, and you get a sense of the paranoia that shapes Chinese table tennis. Indeed, the national team has been in seclusion for a year—no foreigners have even been allowed to play in the Chinese SuperLeague for fear of intelligence-gathering. That ban on foreigners probably didn’t upset Germany’s Ball—according to the MSNBC commentators, his one year in the SuperLeague was marked by 1,000-mile train rides for matches and coaches who wouldn’t let him drink water during games.

Zhang, who speaks her mind far more than the average Chinese athlete, has said that if she had to do it over again she wouldn’t have taken up the sport, such is the pressure to succeed. While this nationwide obsession sounds crazy to our nation of beer-pong players, one benefit of covering sports abroad is learning to be open-minded about what other cultures deem important. China got so hard-core about table tennis because the ITTF was one of the first international sporting bodies to recognize Communist China in the early 1950s. So even though my preferred brand of demolition-derby doubles isn’t on display, and the Chinese are making a mockery of the competition, there’s something remarkable about watching a standing-room-only crowd go nuts for its favorite sport. It would be a lot more fun, though, if I could see just one big smashup …