Ping pong’s coming home

It is scarcely a surprise that Blustering Boris managed to offend the Chinese, the French, and the Jaques family with his unbuttoned suit and his recent comments about table tennis, but whatever one’s view of London’s Mayor, Johnson certainly has a fantastic turn of phrase. ‘The French might look at a dining table and see an opportunity to eat,’ he declared, shortly after accepting the Olympic flag. ‘We looked at it and saw the opportunity to play whiff-whaff.’

A form of indoor tennis has been played on tables in Britain since the nineteenth century, and, despite a low public awareness in the UK, the game has never gone away. There are more than 6,000 table tennis clubs in England alone, and every year in excess of 10,000 young players participate in the UK’s various schools team and individual competitions – which explains why more than 4,000 tickets were sold earlier this year for a table tennis event at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Table tennis returns to the Albert Hall
This wasn’t the typical prom-going audience. That unmistakable ping and pong was barely audible above the screams of excitable teenagers. Alongside accomplished European players, such as the 1992 Olympic Champion Jan-Ove Waldner, the Albert Hall event featured the two new hopes of British men’s table tennis – Paul Drinkhall (who I played recently courtesy of an article for Observer Sport Monthly) and Darius Knight. Currently ranked numbers 1 and 2 respectively in England, both are eighteen years old.

Desmond Douglas, Britain’s greatest table tennis player (and also named last year as one of 100 Great Black Britons), rates both as fantastic prospects – and points out that he didn’t reach the peak of his game until he was 21 or 22. Douglas is now a table tennis coach and all round legend, and, chatting to him recently, he was vociferous in his view that the recent dearth of world class British players was due to government policy around competitive sport in school.

No Brits have qualified for the Olympics since Matthew Syed was our sole representative in Sydney, but that is about to change. Team GB will field players in both men’s and women’s events in London 2012 – and it is anticipated that this may be through genuine qualification rather than as host’s privilege.

Joanna Parker and Kelly Sibley, 21 and 22 respectively, are gradually climbing the world rankings, and having a similar battle to Paul and Darius to claim to be Britain’s best player. With a professional set-up, high class coaches, and an eminently sensible (and likeable) Performance Director in Steen Hansen, table tennis could soon find a way back into the national psyche.

Because it deserves it. It’s a game that is cheap to play, it doesn’t take up much space, is weather-irrelevant, ageless, classless, and is enjoyed by both sexes and people from every ethnicity. Anyone can get the ball over the net, but play seriously for an hour and you’ll need a shower.

The game is not going to do a cycling: the medals at London 2012 will go to the Chinese, they always do. But it’s about time we had a table tennis revival. Although somewhat hopeless at ping-pong diplomacy, Boris Johnson might have a point: let’s bring table tennis home.

The government is now fully behind competitive sport – the Prime Minister reiterated this last month – and Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, appears to talk a great deal of sense. The decision to make swimming free for all by 2012 should be commended – but how about putting whiff-whaff next on the list?

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