Alex Massie

The Unbearable Melancholy of Ping Pong

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There's a delightful piece by Howard Jacobsen in the latest edition of The New Republic in which the author mourns the sad decline of table tennis. I don't know why the magazine hasn't promoted it more. The problem, you see, is the sponge bat. It has changed everything, and not, you will be unsurprised to discover for the better. Sponge ushered in the era of Asian supremacy, thanks in no small part to an athletic revolution that, well, changed the game forever...

The single exception to Asian dominance, provided by Sweden, is only to be explained, I think, by that aspect of table tennis which no technology has ever been able to affect--its introversion. Perhaps because of the cribbed and sunless conditions in which it's played, without space for exuberance of shot or personality, table tennis has always been a sad, inward-looking sport, and sad, inward-looking people enjoy a natural advantage at the table.

The Hungarian Dr. Roland Jacobi became the first official World Table Tennis Champion in 1926. I take his doctorate to be significant. Table tennis began as a sport for intellectuals and philosophers. It was chess in shorts and you didn't even need the shorts. You could win wearing long trousers and without ever having to remove your cardigan. But no less significant is Jacobi's nationality. Apart from the Englishman Fred Perry, founder of the casual attire empire, every world champion for the next 25 years came from one crumbling corner or another of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Hungarian Victor Barna had an amused, laconic backhand the likes of which the game has never seen since. The Viennese-born Richard Bergmann defended so far back from the table he was in another room. Even from those distances they eyed each other up like cats. You needed the shots to be a world champion in those days, but you also needed the psychology.

Whether it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire that gave to table tennis its distinctive air of melancholy reflectiveness, or whether the inherent mopishness of the game simply found its natural home there, is impossible to say. But, until sponge, it remained the perfect sport for deracinated solitaries with quick, lugubrious intelligences.

The whole thing is, as I say, a delight. And I loved the "Chess in Shorts" line since that allows one to add ping pong (sorry, table tennis) to the ever-lengthening list of games comparing themselves to chess. Chief among these, of course, is the noble, ancient sport of curling, often considered "Chess on Ice" and, consequently (or at least putatively), some sort of cousin to table tennis too.

And we shouldn't forget curling's political significance either. No, not at all.

It’s easy to mock or snipe at curling. It’s played by men with brooms for one thing. It’s very popular in Canada for another. But any sport that requires you to root against our friends from the Great White North demands respect. On the curling rink, Canada and the United States swap places. The Canadians are the sport’s brash superpower, the curling colossus; the Americans are the polite, plucky underdogs forced to live in their neighbors’ shadow. (They are also, presumably, the only Americans ever mistaken for Canadians when overseas.)

Curling can even bring America together. Conservatives can wrap themselves in the flag while even the prissiest liberal need feel no guilt in supporting the underdog Minnesotans. We are all curlers now, you might say.

Yes, I was a teenage curler. It's more difficult than it looks.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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