If asked to name history’s most dominant sports franchise, what would you say?
The New York Yankees, maybe. John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins or Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics, perhaps. You-know-who’s Chicago Bulls or Real Madrid.You could make a cogent argument for all.
And you’d be wrong.For a glimpse of dominant that leaves even world-ranked opponents beaten and befuddled, one must travel to the gymnasium at Peking University, where the ladies of the Chinese table tennis team are preparing to annihilate the competition.Again.
“What can I say,” says Doru Gheorghe, coach of the US women’s team, “they never lose.’’
That isn’t hyperbole.A Chinese woman has won every gold medal since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988. They’ve claimed gold and silver three times and once, in 1988, swept the competition. Their male counterparts, by comparison, won only two gold medals in that time span. And all without Title IX; go figure.
One of China’s players, Wang Nan, says her philosophy in life is to smile, even while playing. Opponents had better beware. While these ladies might grin, the truth is they’re devoted followers of the teachings dispensed by that ancient philosopher himself, Al Davis.
Just Win, Baby!
“Dominating,” says David Zhuang, a member of the US men’s table tennis team, which, like many, comprises Chinese ex-pats.
Check the world rankings. You reach No. 6 before a country other than China is represented.“I cannot mention one Michael Jordan,” Zhuang says when asked to evaluate the Chinese women’s team. “I can give you 10 Michael Jordan.”And now, at the Olympics, a team of Jordan clones even gets home-court advantage.
The two-tier gymnasium at PKU has the intimacy of an Indiana high-school barn and yet it can rival the intensity of Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.Among those who might watch table tennis in person at these Olympics are China President Hu Jintao and Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, who showed up twice eight years ago in Sydney and is visiting Beijing, where he watched badminton two days ago.“I have special interest for table tennis,” Hu told reporters.
It seems all of China’s 1.3 billion people have a special interest in table tennis, which is, after all, the national sport.Walk through Jingshan Park, near the Forbidden City, where people of all ages spent a recent morning whacking little white balls back and forth. At DongDan Park, young children receive one-on-one instruction while hopeful parents sit and watch. Think stage moms, only worse.By the way, it isn’t an insult to say ping-pong, said Zhuang, who was a two-time singles champion in China’s Canton Province before his family moved to the US.“If you respect the game,” he said, “it doesn’t matter what you call it.”
If you’re one of those macho, face-painting blowhards who say table tennis is a hobby, not a sport, and that its participants aren’t athletes, then you ought to know the Chinese team practices up to six hours a day. During yesterday’s practice the Chinese woman repeatedly summoned the towel person, who wiped the sweat from on and around the table.
“If you cannot last,” Gheorghe said, “there are others who can.”The hand-eye coordination required of the sport’s best makes me wonder whether Joba Chamberlain could sneak a fastball by any of these gals, or whether Alex Rodriguez could even sustain a rally with them. Probably not. The speed is dizzying, the ball sometimes a blur. Forehand, backhand. Their shots seem to have three settings: fast, faster and did you hear that?
“If you react to the ball you’re already late,” Zhuang said. “You must anticipate.”China’s success is a byproduct of a system where kids with promise are injected into the sports-academy machine.“At least a billion people play,” says US women’s team member Crystal Huang, who became a US citizen in 2005. “Their system is better.”These Olympics are being touted as China’s coming-out party when, in fact, the process began in 1971. Okay, maybe that was the pre-party, but table tennis played a big part in shaping the world.
Buffett, Woods, Mickelson
The People’s Republic of China and the US communicated for the first time since 1949 when a group of table tennis players took a little road trip that paved the way for President Richard Nixon to follow.It became known as ping-pong diplomacy.Ping-pong has some famous fans besides Gates, including Warren Buffett, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who gave the world’s best golfer a miniature ping-pong table as a baby gift.
There are an abundance of dominant athletes at the Olympics, from Michael Phelps to Kobe Bryant, who is part of the once-unbeatable American basketball team. So while Bryant and his millionaire mates work on rediscovering their dominance, let’s remember there’s a team of smiling ladies who are busy exerting theirs.
6 months ago