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LONDON Beijing is about 5,000 miles from London, but when it comes to table tennis, the Chinese athletes are playing with a home court advantage. The four gleaming courts at the competition, set in the middle of a 6,000 seat arena, were made in Shanghai by a company called Double Happiness Sports.
For anyone familiar with the game’s history, it’s a turn of events that is tickling. Table tennis was invented in England in the 19th century as an after dinner pastime for elites, who used the tops of cigar boxes for paddles and books for nets. At a party in 2008 to hand the Olympic flag to the British, Mayor Boris Johnson of London stood before an audience and proudly recounted those facts, and a few others.
“London is the sporting capital of the world,” he bellowed with a professorial wave of the hand. “And I say to the Chinese and I say to the world, Ping Pong is coming home!”
Perhaps. Though in the years since the invention of whiff waff, as the British initially called it, many of the game’s great triumphs were accomplished in China, or at least produced by China’s deep roster. The country’s success culminated in the drubbing it gave the rest of the world at the Beijing Games, when the Chinese won bronze, silver and gold in both the men’s and women’s singles, and gold in both the men’s and women’s teams.
“I think they may want to win in London more than at any other Games,” said Zhen Li, a Double Happiness representative, talking Saturday about the Chinese squad. “The game was born here, so they have a special motivation.”
China’s triumphs and Double Happiness have been linked for decades. The name of the company comes from the 1959 victory of a man named Rong Guotuan, who, at the World Table Tennis Championships, became the first citizen of the People’s Republic of China to win a world title in any sport. That was the first happiness. The second happiness? That the first happiness occurred on the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
Rong and his teammates were hailed as “icons of revolutionary virtue” by none other than the father of the Chinese Revolution, Mao Zedong. The country suddenly wanted more table tennis champions. Chou En lai, the nation’s premier, ordered a number of factories then producing table tennis courts to combine. A year later, Double Happiness was churning out equipment, and the Chinese passion for table tennis entered its craze phase.
That phase screeched briefly and horrifically to a halt during the Cultural Revolution, a period that began in 1966 and marked an era of brutal purges against anything considered anti Maoist or bourgeois. Professional sports apparently fit that bill, and China ceased all competition. Rong was humiliated and jailed, and in the late ’60s, he and three of the country’s other finest players committed suicide.
But as quickly as the game was deemed an enemy of the state, it was rehabilitated and played a key role in China’s first and tentative steps out of international isolation.
“In 1972, your former president, Nixon, visited China, and after this visit, we started the normal relationship between the two countries,” said Zhen, a 30 year old in a dark polo shirt. “But the story starts before that, with table tennis. Because one of your players got on the bus of the Chinese team.”
He was referring to a famous episode in 1971, during the World Table Tennis Championships, held in Japan, when an American player named Glenn Cowan stayed late at a practice and missed the United States bus to his hotel. With the cold war raging, Chinese athletes were discouraged from interacting with Americans, and reportedly everyone on the bus kept a chilly distance from Cowan.
When the bus arrived, there were photographers around to shoot the startling spectacle of an American in the midst of Chinese athletes. News of the encounter reached Chairman Mao.
“This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but is good at foreign affairs,” the chairman said, “and he has a mind for politics.”
Leaders in China and the United States were looking for a pretext for a détente, and suddenly, they had it.
It was the start of what became known as Ping Pong diplomacy. Time magazine called the sport’s role in the defrosting of Sino American relations “the ping heard around the world.”
Double Happiness has since segued from a government owned entity to a private company. Today it has 800 employees, and its top of the line table sells for about $15,000.
For these Games, it sent 55 courts, 8 of which have the Olympic rings affixed on both the right and left sides, in shiny aluminum. Four courts are for competition, and four others are set up in a practice room.
“Every table has its own characteristics, which are hard to define but noticeable,” says Martin Ireland, who is in charge of table tennis equipment for the Games. “We want athletes to practice on the identical courts, so there are no surprises.”
Reviews so far have been favorable.
“The ribbons are great,” says Sarah Hanffou, a player from Cameroon, who spoke Saturday after winning her match.
“The rebounds,” a French speaker standing nearby explained.
“Yes, the ribbons,” she went on. “Sometimes with tables, you have problems with ribbons that go this way, this way. This table is perfect. The ribbons go exactly where you think they’ll go.”