Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mr Smith Goes To.: A Ping-Pong Match

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Mr Smith Goes To.: A Ping-Pong Match

Article excerpt

Wembley Stadium is a sacked pleasure dome. At twilight, the deserted amphitheatre and the buildings around it look like the showgrounds of a terrible empire. The old halls lack the majesty of Kubla Khan's leading leisure attraction. But their dimensions recall the architecture of today's dominant power in the east, namely the People's Republic of China. What better setting in which to watch table tennis, which is for ever associated in the minds of the cold war generation with the tentative emergence of Mao and Deng from behind their Great Wall?

As I understand it, the best-informed Sinologists in table tennis are still at a loss to explain the mastery of the Chinese. But I'm willing to bet all the tea in the People's Teahouse that they've made a great leap forward from relying on officials known as twiddlers, who are still part and parcel of the domestic rule book. I gather that twiddlers are line judges, though I look forward to letters on youth-club headed stationery putting me right. Twiddlers do the best they can with the naked eye. On the evidence of the Commonwealth Masters Invitation championship at Wembley Conference Centre, western table tennis has yet to produce anything like the labour-saving "magic eye" of the lawn code.

If you've grown up knowing a rough-house version of the sport, you assume that one of its chief characteristics is the modest demands it makes on manpower. In extremis - if your brother is riding his bike, say - you can have a perfectly good game against a household wall. …

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