A tribute to ping pong at the Tokyo Games.

In my humble opinion as a four-year-old fan and occasional spectator, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics didn’t get much better than this:

Do you see these beautiful exchanges? Graceful but aggressive paddle attacks? The great reach and agile reflexes of the players? The range of positions and directions these superstars are heading in, all in pursuit of bringing that fragile little white ball back to its cross-net borders? And do you hear the steady, pulsating rhythm of the clicks and clicks of the paddles and the ball bounces, the determined grunts and squeals of shoes, and the rapture of a player’s celebration when an existential point is scored and what they immediately prepare to take another?

This is, my friends, one of the best of this always underrated and underrated Olympic event: table tennis. (Yes, you may know it more colloquially as ping-pong, but Tokyo cannot officially refer to it as such as this name is a registered trademark.)

Ever since I was fascinated by the team table tennis debut at the 2008 Beijing Games, I have tried to attract other American viewers, to no avail. It has always intrigued me, not least because there are few other Olympic sports that require so little effort to derive so much joy from them.

Part of what makes table tennis a wonder is its simplicity. Even if you’ve never owned a ping pong racket in your life, you naturally understand how it all works. And even if you’ve never played for kicks, in the basement of a college dorm or in a bar, you understand the satisfaction of slapping that lightweight ball with your paddle. in wood and rubber, and the joy of an endlessly invigorating rally.

The best of the men’s and women’s teams unleash their firepower all together through incredible bursts of energy.

However, watching the big Olympics, casual gamers also understand that these simple pleasures belies the complex skills that the game demands of anyone. You marvel in part because you realize the attention and sometimes immense physical effort required not only to retaliate a ball that comes your way, but also to make sure it crosses the net and hits the table. Even then, when he does come back, you should immediately make sure that you only allow him one bounce. your end of the table, that you’re following it at the right speed and in the right direction, and you’re ready to stretch your arm out and tilt your wrist to the exact degree to hit it correctly. CORN! In this same instantaneous movement, you must also remember that you must not hit it back if the ball is not going to hit your end of the table. You must therefore be sufficiently familiar with the physics of the ball and sufficiently perceptive of its trajectory to either let it sail for a long time if it is passed, or to reverse it if it is not, lest it land. and does not fall from a sneaky corner or table edge. . (And there are players who love give their balls a sneaky little lift – watch the way No.1 player Chen Meng hits her return to serve giving the ball an extra spiral that completely changes its trajectory). If this happens, you must then be prepared to sprint well outside normal limits in order to get the ball back and aim it within limits – and be prepared once again– all in the next split second that the bullet could come straight back to you.

Not to mention, if you’re one of those players who like to get really aggressive, you might want to make sure that your epic winners actually make it to the table and are able to get rid of your opponent’s volley, or you don’t. do not. lose or damage any of the equipment, or you don’t end up running so far to slam it home that you start interacting with onlookers and spectators.

You get what I’m saying: table tennis is a lot of fun to play even if you’re not at all good at it. But to be really awesome, you have to be wickedly qualified. You must 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 an amazing television, especially when you watch the best in the galaxy do their jobs. Just look at the jumps and twists that China’s Fan Zhendong and back-to-back men’s singles gold medalist Ma Long faced off:

I mean, don’t you want more? !!! ??!

Good news: this summer you are looking at an optimal time for sports. The Tokyo 2020 Games saw the debut of mixed doubles table tennis. four superstars crisscrossing side by side to get the most out of their table, but you also have the best of male and female rosters unleashing their firepower all together through incredible bursts of energy. Why would you want to miss the chance to see Japan’s incredible Mima Ito take on Taiwan’s thunderous Cheng I-Ching?

Plus, perhaps to the annoyance of longtime purists, which I can’t claim to be, the game, which has only been Olympic-level competitive since 1988, has been steadily optimized for television in recent years, with bigger and bigger balls. for better visibility, game point thresholds going from 21 to 11 (thus making matches shorter), and technical adjustments made to the paddles. As a result, there is a bit of staged flair in everything, a dance perhaps meant to follow a certain pattern different from non-televised matches. But the choreography is beautiful and audiences around the world love it: Table tennis ranked fifth among all televised sports at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and over half a billion people attended. at the Rio 2016 Games. Heck, more Chinese Olympic fans watched the event than there are even people in the United States.

This makes sense, given that table tennis has long been dominated worldwide by China in both power and audience. Comparatively, there aren’t many American celebrities or all Olympic medals; American mega-talent Nikhil Kumar and Juan Liu haven’t been able to bring him home this year. Meanwhile, most of the other countries that tend to be legitimate contenders are on the other side of the Pacific, including Singapore and Taiwan.

This year, however, there may be signs of reshuffles ahead. In the first mixed doubles event, the Japanese team managed to win gold against the favorite Chinese team. In Tuesday’s women’s team semi-finals, world number one Chen Meng faced a much more difficult challenge than usual from German silver medalist Petrissa Solja. And, across the ocean, Syria sent 12-year-old legend Hend Zaza to compete in Tokyo, who is the youngest Olympian this year in all sports as well as the youngest table tennis competitor of the Games – and his talent is breathtaking.

Look, I understand my American brethren are the most likely to watch Olympic events that produce or use more widely recognized American stars, such as swimming, gymnastics, and track and field. But to miss table tennis for this reason is a huge mistake. I promise-to promise– you will be hard pressed to find many events at the Olympics that are more captivating than this one.

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