BACK & FORTH: Pingpong needs some real competition

Aug. 23, 2008, 6:45 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) AP reporter Anita Chang is covering table tennis during the Beijing games and blogging about the rapid-fire action at Peking University Gymnasium.

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SATURDAY, Aug. 23, 2008

Today's the last day of pingpong. And from beginning to end, the Chinese have been virtually unbeatable.

The Chinese won the gold in both the men's and women's teams event. Last night, the Chinese women swept all three medals in singles. It wasn't much of a surprise, really, no one had been able to challenge them throughout the tournament.

Tonight it's the Chinese men's turn: They're guaranteed at least the gold and silver. The only person who can prevent an eight-medal haul (the two team golds, plus six individual medals) by China is a 42-year-old Swedish guy who came out of retirement to participate in the Olympics.

Jorgen Persson is a father of three and has played in every Olympic Games since table tennis was added as an event in 1988. He's never won a medal.

He defied all odds by making it to the men's singles semifinals, defeating Croatia's Zoran Primorac to advance.

"It's very funny to play against Persson, because I may be one of the oldest players but he is even older than me," said Primorac, 39, who has also competed in all six Olympics with table tennis.

This morning, Persson lost to No. 1-ranked Wang Hao of China in the semifinals. Wang is younger than Persson by 17 years. Persson will play world No. 4 Wang Liqin for the bronze.

What does that say about the sport of table tennis? That the best the world can muster against the Chinese is a very talented but middle-aged man who won the World Championship in 1991?

It's too bad. Table tennis is a fun sport. What would make it better is some real competition.

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FRIDAY, Aug. 22, 2008

This morning's women's semifinals featured China vs. China and China vs. Singapore. Actually, the Singaporean player, Li Jia Wei, is from Beijing and used to be the training partner of her semifinal opponent Zhang Yining. So one could say that matchup was more like China vs. former China.

Anyway, I thought the fans here would be excited to see so many Chinese athletes making it to the final rounds. But everyone was a bit "eehh" about the whole thing.

During the match between China's Guo Yue and China's Wang Nan, there were a few shouts of "Go Guo Yue" and "Go Wang Nan" but nothing even coming close to the raucous atmosphere of before.

Remember, these are the fans who have been tirelessly screaming "Jia You!" and waving Chinese flags at every competition. But today, it seems as if they've run out of steam now that all the other competitors have been defeated.

Thankfully, a group of Swedes came in to pump up the flat atmosphere this afternoon. Yes, Swedes. They were here for a men's quarterfinal match this afternoon, the ONLY one of the whole day that doesn't involve a Chinese player.

The very blonde Scandinavians - including a sizable group of women's handball and track athletes sitting up front - came to cheer on their countryman Jorgen Persson as he played Croatia's Zoran Primorac. They waved flags and sang songs (one went: "oy-oy-oy-oy, oyoyoyoy") and traded chants with small clusters of other yellow-shirted Swedish fans.

The Chinese fans might be loud when they want to be, but they don't have organized cheers or songs. They were fascinated by the Swedes, getting out of their seats to snap pictures of these very animated visitors to the pingpong venue.

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WEDNESDAY, Aug. 20, 2008

Everyone knows the Chinese are really good at pingpong.

How good? Let's look at some numbers.

At the Beijing Olympics, there are 78 women competing in the table tennis event. Thirty-five were born in China, although only three actually play for China.

That means 45 percent - nearly half - of the female competitors in table tennis are from China.

The Chinese dominance is not so overwhelming on the men's side, but it would be notable if it were any other country and any other sport. There are 77 male athletes playing pingpong in Beijing. Of these, 20 athletes - or 26 percent - were born in China. Again, only three of the 20 play for China.

Why is China so good? Well, it's the national sport of 1.3 billion people, which creates a talent pool that no other country can match. Only a few players can ever make the national team, so the others who don't make the cut often move overseas for more opportunities to compete.

This afternoon was round two of the women's singles competition, during which four games are played at once. Of the eight athletes on the floor, six were Chinese-born: Gao Jun (U.S.), Lau Sui Fei (Hong Kong), Xian Yi Fang (France), Wu Xue (Dominican Republic), Stephanie Xu Sang (Australia) and Ni Xia Lian (Luxembourg).

"I have not played her before, but I know her because she is Chinese and one of the former Chinese national team members," Lau said about her French opponent, Xian. "Because of that, I took this match seriously."

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TUESDAY, Aug. 19, 2008

The grueling table tennis team event at the Olympics is finally over. Both the Chinese men's and women's teams won gold after the six-day competition, without too much of a struggle. No surprise there.

Now the singles event has started, beginning with matches between the lowest-ranked players at the Olympics.

I've been spoiled watching the world's best athletes in the team tournament - the ones who hit the ball at speeds of 60 mph. Even though the competitors now are the best pingpong athletes in their countries, there's really no comparison.

I'm not the only one who feels a bit uninspired by the first-round play. Today, a man in the front row took a long nap during the early session, dozing sideways in his chair. Two little boys in the first tier were playing cards.

It's interesting to think, though, that this single-elimination tournament is the only chance many of these athletes will get to compete in the Olympics. Some of them get really worked up while they play, jumping and shouting and pumping their fists after points.

One of them was Sharath Achanta of India, who wore a bandanna in his hair like he was Rafael Nadal. It turns out he knows his Spanish opponent, Alfredo Carneros, quite well.

"We train with each other everyday and we live in the same apartment. So it's hard for both of us to have to fight against each other," Achanta said. "I feel sad about his loss and similarly, he would feel sad if I lost."

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MONDAY, Aug. 18, 2008

On one side of the Olympic table tennis venue is a temporary structure built out of white plastic sheeting. The sign near the opening says "gluing room."

We have all played pingpong before using paddles where the rubber is peeling off or even missing. But that rubber covering is extremely important for competitive table tennis players, who use it to help them dish out tricky shots.

So most players glue rubber on the paddle before every match. Hence the "gluing room." (I took a peek inside. It has a row of narrow tables and hair dryers at every station.)

The athletes call the adhesive "speed glue." Like the glue used to fix bicycle tires, it produces a rubberized effect and allows the player to give the ball more spin or more speed.

These Olympics are the last time players will be allowed to use speed glue, however. The International Table Tennis Federation has banned it after Sept. 1. The reason? A player once passed out from the fumes.

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SATURDAY, Aug. 16, 2008

Part of the reason table tennis isn't very popular in places like the U.S., I think, is because it's not considered a sexy sport. How are ordinary-looking dudes in shiny white sneakers supposed to compete with flashy NBA stars or the tough guys in the NFL?

But there are, in fact, pingpong heartthrobs. The females in the Peking University Gymnasium were going crazy today for Germany's Timo Boll.

In a sport dominated by Asian players, Boll (ranked No. 6 in the world) definitely stands out with his clean-cut European looks. He was the hero this afternoon, winning the decisive game in Germany's matchup against Japan. After he scored the winning point, dozens of fans flocked courtside to get autographs, including one woman who got him to sign his name with a tube of bright pink lipstick.

"Ooohh, Timo Boll, I love him," cooed one of the college-aged Chinese volunteers in the mixed zone where reporters interview athletes after the matches.

They did not know that Boll has a personal Web site with lots of photos. There's Timo dressed in a suit and tie, preparing to serve the ball. Timo in scuba gear. Timo wearing only tight black shorts, his leg wrapped seductively around an upright pingpong table.

Check it out! http://www.timo-boll.de/

Teammate Christian Suss also has a Web site: http://www.christiansuess.de/front-content.php

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THURSDAY, Aug. 14, 2008

Some of the most exciting pingpong here has been played when the gymnasium is nearly empty.

During the early round of team competition, which is a best-of-five format, the top-ranked Chinese can beat their opponents in 45 minutes. After the team leaves the floor, so do many of the fans. But some of the best games are those bitterly fought contests that stretch past the two-hour mark.

Today, Spain and Japan's women's teams battled for nearly three hours in a crucial contest that would help decide who could advance to the next round.

The matchup for the fifth and deciding match was one of the most thrilling to watch so far in this competition. Ai Fukuhara and Galia Dvorak are both quick-attacking players, and they sped along the ends of the tables stabbing at the ball with vicious forehands and backhands.

Hopefully those two will face off again in the singles event.

Even though China and Japan have decades of bad relations between them, 19-year-old Fukuhara is one of the most popular players in China, mostly for her adorable looks that have earned her the nickname "Porcelain Doll." She carried the Japanese flag during the opening ceremony.

Her popularity also stems from the fact that she trained in northeast China for many years and learned to speak fluent Mandarin - with the region's distinctive accent. It would be similar to a French girl moving to the U.S. and speaking English as though she had lived in Boston all her life.

During matches, the 5-foot-1 Fukuhara is all business, clenching her fist in front of her chin after every point. But she's also known to be emotional, earning her the No. 2 spot on a list of "Top Ten Sports Hotties Who Love to Cry" on the popular Chinese online forum mop.com. Maria Sharapova was voted No. 1.

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WEDNESDAY, Aug. 13, 2008

Imagine watching a pingpong game in your basement, following the tiny ball as it bounces back and forth, back and forth. Now, multiply that by eight. Then add 16 of the world's best athletes, who are capable of slapping the ball to speeds of 60 mph or more.

That's Olympic table tennis. It's exhausting to watch!

Today is Day 1 of the competition. Table tennis is the national sport of China, so this will be one of the most fun and most Chinese events of the Beijing Games.

The Chinese fans at the Peking University Gymnasium are really into it. Of course they cheer for the home team with shouts of "Go China!" but they'll cheer like crazy for any exciting back and forth.

"Waah! Waah!"

The tricky part is figuring out which of the eight tables they're directing the cheers at.

The stands have been pretty full, though I was surprised at the many clumps of empty seats. When I went out for lunch, I saw about a half-dozen scalpers under a pedestrian bridge leading to the spectator's entrance. One guy had six tickets and was selling them for 5,000 yuan (about US$730) each! "Some people are thinking about it," he told me.

Something I noticed not directly related to table tennis: The official song, "Beijing Welcomes You," which is being played over and over in the city. I felt like I had truly arrived at the Beijing games when they began blasting it over the loudspeakers before the matches began.

It's one of those horribly catchy songs that stays in your head all day. It was sung by many famous singers from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. If you watch the music video, you will see how organizers of the Beijing Olympics want the world to see the city.

Check it out: http://v.youku.com/v-show/id-XMzg4MDA5MDg.html.

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