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

A less insular and more worldly China may be turning away from the sport of Mao Zedong's ping pong diplomacy, once a source of tremendous national pride and obsession.

China's Xu Zengcai, left, and Jiang Jialiang compete at the 1988 Olympics. (AP)

The memory lives in every grown-up Chinese: huddling in front of the television with family and friends, the snacks and beer on the table, all eyes glued to a tiny bouncing ball on the screen as the rhythmic ka-donk, ka-dink, ka-donk, ka-dink fills the otherwise silent room. Table tennis, China's unofficial national sport since the 1950s, has given millions of Chinese a taste of national glory and prestige long before their country's more recent rise. Olympic table tennis, in which China has won 23 of 27 gold medals, stirs a national craze that can make it feel like China's Superbowl. But this year, though Chinese state media has covered and re-covered the London matches just as obsessively as before, somehow table tennis failed to evoke the same breath-holding and fist-waving of previous years. Even before the London games, the sport's waning popularity in China had become evident. But, just as table tennis in China was always about much more than just table tennis, so too is its decline a sign of something bigger. As the nationalism that once fueled this sport's popularity recedes, and as China focuses less within and more on the outside world, its increasingly globally minded citizens are shifting their attention to Western sports. China isn't a marginal country anymore, their thinking seems to go, so why should Chinese athletics focus on such a marginal sport?

The history of table tennis in China has long symbolized, and at moments played a direct role in, the fate of the nation. First invented by Victorian English in the 1880s, its early popularity was confined mostly to European intellectuals and aristocrats. Then, in the wake of World War II, as China just rose up from its century of humiliation, it absorbed this parlor game from the imperial power and made it China's own. In the early 1950s, when the International Table Tennis Federation recognized the Communist Chinese government in Beijing over the exile leadership in Taiwan (something the U.S. wouldn't do until 1979), Mao Zedong decreed table tennis the national sport, and invested heavily in cultivating competitive players. China won its first world champion in 1959, defeating Japan on an international stage, a symbolic repudiation of Imperial Japan's brutal 1930s invasion of China. "We listened [to the table tennis match] on the radio with such anxiety and expectation," recalled He Fuming, a retired journalist, of a much-celebrated 1965 match against Japan. "When Zhuang [Zedong] defeated the Japanese, he's all everyone talked about on the street and on the buses."

Perhaps the most famous moment in Chinese table tennis was when Zhuang Zedong befriended an American player named Glenn Cowan at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan. The U.S. had still not even recognized the Bejing government, and Cold War tensions defined the standoffish U.S.-China relationship. Zhuang's bold gesture handed Mao a pretext for the first small sign of détente with the United States: ping pong diplomacy. He immediately invited the U.S. table tennis team to visit, which paved way for President Richard Nixon's historic trip the next year.

As Henry Kissinger later said of the 1971 match in Beijing, "One of the most remarkable gifts of the Chinese is to make the meticulously planned appear spontaneous." But the sport was popular for non-political reasons as well. In cramped urban neighborhoods or impoverished rural areas, ping pong tables made of a concrete slate and a row of bricks became a ubiquitous presence. Students played with their teachers, grandparents with their grandkids, and factory supervisors with their workers. In a society sometimes fraught with class or political divisions, the table can be a great equalizer.

China's dominance in table tennis has grown, since its 1988 introduction at the Olympics, into a near-monopoly. In 2008, the Chinese teams won the gold, silver, and bronze in both men's and women's singles, as well as gold and silver in both doubles. As international sports writers sometimes point out, qualifying for the Chinese national team is harder than winning the Olympics. Some players, finding the competition at home too fierce, have chosen to immigrate abroad. Chinese players now so heavily populate foreign teams that the International Table Tennis Federation, fearing the practice was stifling local talent in other countries, announced new rules after the Beijing Olympics that make it harder for the Chinese players who relocated to represent foreign teams.

In London, China is again so dominating the matches that its gold medal was a foregone conclusion before the matches were even over: in the men's and women's finals, Chinese players stood at both sides of the tables. This time, though, once-obsessive Chinese audiences were barely watching. According to the state sports channel, television ratings for table tennis have plunged since the Beijing Olympics. Though official data is still unavailable, the Chinese television rating for the finals at the 2009 World Table Tennis Championships is just 0.5 percent, down from above 5 percent in 2007.

"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.