x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Olympics: An unfulfilling treat that is table tennis

Table tennis demands intricate skill as well as unnaturally swift reactions. But, because its visual scale is small, it is impossible to appreciate the sport.

The subtle imparting of spin to a small ball with the tiny bat can be very difficult for the discerning view to pick up.
The subtle imparting of spin to a small ball with the tiny bat can be very difficult for the discerning view to pick up.

Table tennis is in a bizarre and especially frustrating predicament. It has always been there: almost everybody has played and enjoyed it and probably would not mind playing it more, and yet almost nobody watches it.

Only every so often does it even register its presence - that too, mildly - at the world championships or more visibly as it is doing now, at the Olympics.

Now, for the indecisive an Olympics broadcast is a disaster. From this smorgasbord of sport, what do you watch? I've decided to focus on table tennis during the early days, because one, like everybody else I loved playing it and two, I love the sound it creates.

Listen to a rally. The sounds are tick-tock clean, each stroke and table bounce forming a complete, unencumbered note by itself.

The rally creates slightly irregular beats, but there is rhythm underpinning each point. If the success of sports was based on auricular pleasure table tennis would be a winner.

Sports, however, are best watched and from a few matches, the casual observer can understand why he is not a regular follower and why the sport is not the best visual experience.

Table tennis demands great, intricate skill as well as unnaturally swift reactions and it is heavily reliant on all kinds of spin.

But because its visual scale is small - the ball is 40mm in diameter, the table 2.74m by 1.52m, and the movement of athlete fairly limited - it is impossible to appreciate its skill and demands on a body.

Games are played at such speed that, in real time, cameras and the eye, cannot process its range.

Take the serve: we know - if we are familiar - just how much spin is imparted for it but all we see is a small ball bouncing across the net.

If slowed right down the spectacle can be appreciated.

As photographer Matthew Donaldson shows in his short film of the South Korean player (and model celebrity) Sooyeon Lee, intrinsically the movements are pretty stylised: the sweeping pivots of the upper body, the otherwise unspotted whips of the wrists, the economy of movement in some shots, the lulling rise and crouch of stance, the many grips.

Still, that the end product of all that can be a tiny ball simply bouncing back on a table, is at some level unfulfilling.

We watch sport to be thrilled by great physical movement producing equally great and compelling spectacle: a batsman's stumps shattered, a goalkeeper's diving saves, running along a baseline and scrambling a forehand, flying through the air towards a hoop.

Small ball, unnoticed spin and loop, back on table? Not so much.

The inability to see, and so appreciate and understand, the depth, leads to another fatal flaw (this, besides the considerable, inherent disadvantage of involving a table, because anything played on a table can't really be sport can it? Subbuteo? Really? Chess? Maybe).

It can look like a deceptively easy game to master.

Play it a few times and you will understand: how hard can it be, with some practice, to keep hitting the ball back on the table?

And so, though this is great for accessibility it erodes the idea and status of table tennis as a sport played by highly trained, elite athletes. Somewhere inside we love sport precisely because we can see and understand that we cannot do what they do.

On second thoughts, that should be surprising because if there is one thing everyone knows about table tennis it is that China rules. And one tenet of modern life is that the Chinese are expert at so much the rest of the world cannot even imagine doing.

Chinese domination - they have won 20 of 24 gold medals since the Olympics took in table tennis, surprisingly late, in 1988 and swept all six medals in Beijing - is admirable, but apparently worrisome, at least according to the International Table Tennis Federation president Adham Sharara.

He said recently that though he admired their quality, the lack of challenge to China was "devastating" for the sport.

Rule changes to reduce the number of players from one country in one event to two mean that China cannot repeat Beijing. But they are still likely to win all available golds.

Sharara's stance actually neatly sums up the incongruity of this top-flight sport said to possess the soul of an amateur game.

Instead of appreciating the standards to which the Chinese have raised the game, there is concern that their domination is hurting it.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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