China, Still the World Champ, Is Falling Out of Love With Table Tennis

"Watching these games is like watching a TV series that has been on for 53 years, with the same plot repeated over and over again," a columnist complained in a Chinese newspaper, lamenting the lack of suspense in Olympic table tennis. On Weibo, China's Twitter, table tennis is increasingly described as China's "lonely national sport."

"The Olympic committee should cancel badminton and ping pong. They are so boring!" Duren007 wrote in a Weibo tweet.

"Mah-jongg should be listed as an Olympic sport. Then it will at least have a few more thousands of millions of audience," yushenhanyuhuanglaozhinei joked. "It can win more glory for China than ping pong."

The impression that the sport's popularity is declining in China can seem widespread here, especially among young people. Once hailed as the populist "all-people sport," it is now increasingly perceived as a leisure activity for seniors. In street parks, retired cadres pass the ball back and forth as their grandchildren crowd into nearby courts in Jordan sneakers to play what often feels the new national sport: basketball.

"We also played ping pong. But, as boys, we want something that makes us drip in sweat," explained Wang Chen, a basketball lover and a rising sophomore at Yale University from China. On a national level, athletes like basketball star Yao Ming and the hurdler Liu Xiang are new symbols of China's athletic prowess. Swimmers Sun Yang and Ye Shiwen, after their record-breaking performance in London, sparked celebration here in Beijing, while the table tennis victories barely raised an eyebrow.

The once-strong link between table tennis and China's national prestige seems to be weakening as people here move on from the old, somewhat insular ways. Even the party's top-down management of the national athletic system has entrenched the perception of table tennis as a symbol of an outdated China. Chinese Olympians are handpicked by state coaches while they're as young as five or six, sent to sports schools and honed through thousands of hours of practice. Though match fixing is no longer standard practice as it used to be, players are encouraged to put the team's glory above their own. "I don't feel any pressure now," as second seed Wang Hao admitted to the Telegraph before his final against teammate Zhang Jike, "because we are both playing for China."

But is China's single-minded pursuit of gold medals taking something away from the long-popular sport? It's a question more Chinese are starting to ask. In an essay titled "Chinese Ping Pong: Winning the World, Losing the future," blogger Ding Zhengyu argues, "Nobody likes to watch table tennis, because there is no suspense. For a sport to have a future in any country, having strong rivals matters more than winning medals. ... China should abandon its top-down management of table tennis and leave it to the market." He's not alone in losing his enthusiasm for the sport. "When I was young I used to cheer for every medal China won. Now I started to feel the Olympic events like table tennis and badminton are boring," user dingyizhou_1983 wrote on Weibo. "Behind each gold medal is taxpayers' hard-earned money."

As China has become more educated, more middle class, and more worldly, its tolerance for heavy-handed state management of athletics, and perhaps other areas, is running low. With the enormous rise in popularity of sports such as basketball and soccer -- if not necessarily more Western, then certainly less intrinsically Chinese -- table tennis might soon descend from its long-held place at the center of Chinese sports to the back alleys and street parks where children play and seniors relax.

When three-time world champion Zhuang Zedong first met the American player Glenn Cowan on a bus in Nagoya in 1971, he presented Cowan with a silk-brocade scarf, bearing the image of a Chinese landscape, as an ice-breaking gesture. Glenn, a flamboyant hippie with a floppy hat over long locks, later gave Zhuang a T-shirt with a peace sign and the words "Let it be" written on it. After 40 years, these words seem to be finally reaching China's ping pong tables.

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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