Five-ring Circus

The Most Thrilling Olympic Sport Is Played in Basements Nationwide

Only one event requires the footwork of a tap dancer, the swoop and strength of a swan, the aim of an archer, and the reflexes and controlled-chaos energy of a fly.

Harimoto pumps his fist and yells
Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto after defeating Germany’s Patrick Franziska during their men’s team semifinal table tennis match at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium during the 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo on Wednesday. Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images

In my humble, four-year-fan, casual-viewer opinion, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics hasn’t gotten much better than this:

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Do you see those beautiful exchanges? The graceful-yet-aggressive paddle attacks? The wide reach and nimble reflexes of the players? The range of positions and directions these superstars launch themselves out to, all in pursuit of returning that fragile little white ball to its cross-net borders? And do you hear the steady, heart-pumping rhythm from the clicks and clacks of the paddles and ball bounces, the determined grunts and shoe squeaks, and the rapture of a player’s celebration when one existential point is scored and they immediately prepare to take another?

That, my friends, is some of the best of that perennially underrated and underappreciated Olympic event: table tennis. (Yes, you may know it more familiarly as ping-pong, but Tokyo cannot officially refer to it as such because that name is a trademark.)

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Ever since I was entranced by the debut of the team table tennis event in Beijing’s 2008 Games, I’ve been trying to get other American viewers on board, to sadly little avail. This has always puzzled me, not least because there are few other Olympic sports that require so little effort to get so much joy out of.

Part of what makes table tennis such a marvel is its simplicity. Even if you’ve never even held a ping-pong paddle in your life, you do inherently understand how it all works. And even if you’ve only ever played for kicks, in the basement of a college dorm room or at a bar, you well understand the satisfaction of getting a great smack out of that light ball with your wood-and-rubber paddle, and the joy of a continually revving back-and-forth rally.

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However, in watching the Olympic greats, casual players also understand that those simple pleasures belie the complex skill set that the game demands out of anybody. You marvel in part because you realize the attention and sometimes immense physical effort required to not only hit back a ball that comes your way, but also to ensure it actually clears the net and hits the table. Even then, when it comes whizzing back, you instantly have to make sure that you allow it just one bounce on your end of the table, that you’re following it at the right speed and direction, and that you’re ready to stretch your arm and angle your wrist at the precise degree to hit it properly. BUT! In this same instantaneous motion, you must also remember that you should not hit it back if the ball is not going to hit your end of the table. So you must be familiar enough with the ball’s physics and perceptive enough of its trajectory to either let it sail long if it’s overhit, or to pop it back if it isn’t, lest it land on and drop off a sneaky table corner or edge. (And there are players who love giving their balls a lil sneaky topspin—watch the way No. 1 player Chen Meng hits her return to a serve by giving the ball an extra spiral that completely shifts its arc.) If that happens, you must then be ready to sprint way outside normal bounds in order to retrieve the ball and aim it back inbounds—and get ready all over again—all in the next split second that the ball could come right back to you.

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Not to mention, if you’re one of those players who likes to get really aggressive, you might want to make sure your epic winners actually make it onto the table and are able to throw off your opponent’s volley, or that you don’t lose or damage any of the equipment, or that you don’t end up running so far out to slam it home that you begin interacting with the sidelines and audience.

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You get what I’m saying: Table tennis is a lot of fun to play even if you’re not skilled at all. But to be truly great, you do have to be wickedly skilled. You have to have the footwork of a tap dancer, the swoop and strength of a swan, the aim of an archer, the reflexes and controlled-chaos energy of a fly. And that makes for amazing TV, especially when you are watching the best in the galaxy do their thing. Just look at the leaps and twists China’s Fan Zhendong and back-to-back men’s singles gold medalist Ma Long put each other through:

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I mean, don’t you want more?!!!??!

Good news: This summer, you’re watching at an optimal time for the sport. The 2020 Tokyo Games has seen the debut of mixed doubles table tennis—so not only do you have four superstars crisscrossing side by side to make the most of their table, but you also have the best of both the men’s and women’s rosters releasing their firepower all together through unbelievable bursts of energy. Why would you let yourself miss the chance to see Japan’s amazing Mima Ito clash with Taiwan’s thunderous Cheng I-Ching?

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Plus—perhaps to the disgruntlement of longtime purists, which I cannot claim myself to be—the game, which has only been competitive at the Olympic level since 1988, has been steadily optimized for TV viewing in recent years, with balls being increased in size for greater visibility, game-point thresholds falling from 21 to 11 (thus making the matches shorter), and technical adjustments being made to paddles. As a result, there is a bit of staged flair to everything, a dance perhaps intended to follow a certain pattern different from untelevised matches. But the choreography is beautiful, and audiences the world over are loving it: Table tennis ranked fifth among all sports for TV viewing at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and more than a half-billion people tuned in to the 2016 Rio Games’ matches. Heck, more Chinese Olympic fans watched the event than there are even people in the U.S.

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This makes sense, considering that table tennis has been long dominated worldwide by China in both star power and viewership. Comparatively, it doesn’t have a lot of American celebrities or any Olympic medals; the United States’ own megatalented Nikhil Kumar and Juan Liu were unable to bring it home this year. Meanwhile, most of the other nations that tend to be legitimate contenders lie way across the Pacific, including Singapore and Taiwan.

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This year, however, there may be signs of shakeups to come. In the debut mixed doubles event, Japan’s team pulled off an upset to win gold over China’s top-seeded team. During Tuesday’s women’s team semifinals, world No. 1 Chen Meng faced much more of a challenge than usual from German silver medalist Petrissa Solja. And, from across the other ocean, Syria sent 12-year-old legend Hend Zaza to compete in Tokyo, who is this year’s youngest Olympian in any sport as well as the Games’ youngest table tennis competitor ever—and her skill is mind-blowing.

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Look, I understand my fellow American viewers are most likely to watch Olympic events that produce or utilize more widely recognized stateside stars, like swimming, gymnastics, and track. But missing out on table tennis for that reason is a huge mistake. I promise—promise—you’ll have a difficult time finding many events at the Olympics that are more riveting than this.

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