The basic pattern was unlikely: Late in the evening, in the dead of winter, a 48-year-old man playing table tennis in a deserted stadium at an event no one really wanted to see happen.
But the player was Australia’s Jian Fang Lay, and the Tokyo Games suddenly seemed less bleak.
You’re not alone if you’ve never heard of Lay, although she should be better known.
On Saturday she became the first Australian to compete in six Olympics and did light work on Cuban Daniela Fonceca in the morning preliminaries.
In the overnight session, the 156th-ranked veteran faced 70s-ranked Italian Debora Vivarelli with a right handshake and all the physical advantages of being 20 years younger than her opponent.
To be honest, it was Vivarelli to lose.
Yet the Italian was also a bundle of nervous energy.
Lay, who herself succumbed to nervousness during her first Games in Sydney in 2000, is now a mother of two teenagers and is clearly overcoming such emotions. She jumped in the first game: 11-7 in a frenzied six minutes.
With Lay leading 2-1, Vivarelli had both the momentum and the game point to tie the game. You thought she would and feared for Lay’s chances if she did.
But Lay squeezed it and the mistakes happened, and soon it was all over – a 4-1 win over the Australian in 31 minutes.
It was not a moment of medal. He won’t make highlight reels in a fortnight. He probably hasn’t even been watched by many Australians.
But it was a triumph of old-fashioned experience and a victory for sports mavericks.
Lay’s Chinese-born penholder grip isn’t all that unusual in table tennis, but the way she spins her racquet during points – alternating between using the smooth and peck rubbers. of his bat – is totally unconventional.
Sometimes the technique has baffled even seasoned opponents. Here, Vivarelli looked like she had been asked to solve a Rubix cube with one hand.
How did Lay even reach a sixth Games? The withdrawal of a younger rival has helped, it’s true, but few members of the Australian squad match the amateur ideals of the Olympics of yesteryear better than our table tennis stars.
When Lay first won in Sydney, other sports benefited from patriotic fundraising splurges. No ping-pong; its governing body couldn’t even afford a full-time national coach.
In Lay’s birthplace, a third of the population gambles. In Australia, Olympians have often trained in their garages.
Before London 2010, Lay always stood in the shadow of her most famous teammate Miao Miao.
As the duo entered their fourth Games, Miao summed up her frustrations with the team’s preparations: “There is no preparation,” she told The Age.
âThere is no training camp. There is no money for anything. There are no foreign tournaments that we can prepare for. How do we compete? can’t. It’s sad. Because I have to work rather than train, I haven’t improved as I should have. “
And nothing has changed much.
For Lay, maybe he didn’t need it.
Fierce self-criticism, she almost gave up on several occasions before making the buzz. As a young girl in China, she would run away after school to avoid classes, only to be coaxed by her father.
When she emigrated to Australia in 1994, her husband Jorge, who also served as her coach, had to give up her retirement.
Yet at the end of that decade, she was the national champion in both singles and doubles and she never slowed down.
How far will she go from here? A medal is a pipe dream, although it already has one full of Commonwealth Games medals and nothing disturbs it.
The only other reason to play is the love of the game.
What an amusing reminder that such rewards are not consolation prizes.