As Dubai becomes an official sponsor of the Chinese table tennis team, Vision asks how ping pong became the world’s coolest sport
Forget Manchester United in the Premier League, the San Francisco Giants in baseball or New Zealand in rugby: the most dominant outfit in world sport is surely the Chinese table-tennis team. At last year’s Olympics in London, they won every single gold. In fact, since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1988, there have been only four occasions when the gold has not gone to a man or woman from China.
When world number one Ma Long won the World Tour Qatar Open earlier this year, he did it in front of a television audience of millions and did so with “Dubai” emblazoned on his shirt. The emirate became the official sponsor of the Chinese table tennis team at the start of the year. It feels like the right time for Dubai to become associated with the sport: not only is exposure in China for the professionals already at a staggering level (more than 100 million viewers watched the last world championship) but there is a sense that table tennis is gaining traction as an international social pastime, too.
When Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon gets involved in promoting the joys of a “ping pong social club” – where the idea is to hang out, have a smoothie and some food, play the game and watch match-ups between pros – it’s clear that table tennis has momentum. With her associates, Sarandon set up SPiN New York in 2009 in a cool venue that combined 17 tables with a bar and restaurant. SPiN has now branched out into Los Angeles, Toronto and Milwaukee. As she said at the LA launch last December, “I love the game because it cuts across gender, age and body type.”
So how did table tennis get so cool? Adam Breeden is the man behind Bounce, a new ping pong bar and restaurant in London that seems to ride the current wave of interest perfectly, but has actually been two years in the making. “Table tennis is a brilliant game, but I wasn’t sure it would work at first,” he admits. But armed with a passion for the game from business partner and county player Dov Penzik, and Breeden’s experience with the chain of hip bowling alleys All Star Lanes, they set about fashioning a venue with 17 ping pong tables, a pizza restaurant, bar and a private room.
“It wouldn’t work if it was just about two people coming here to hire a table and play,” he admits. “We’ve always wanted this to be a really good place to come and eat and drink, even if the tables weren’t here. Table tennis facilitates what people want to do, which is have a good time as a group. So it was about being a social experience rather than a sporty one, and it took a lot of thought to get right.”
For all the talk of ping pong being newly cool, the sense of history is equally important. Ask many people about their first memory of playing the game and talk will almost immediately turn nostalgic, of childhood afternoons spent with two table tennis bats and a cracked ball.
“The people who are coming here grew up with a table in their school, their social club, their parents’ work environment,” says Breeden. “So I think the appetite to play the game is latent in people – it’s just about finding tables and reminding them that they love playing. I also think that you don’t have to play it seriously to get enjoyment out of it. It’s the kind of game anyone can have fun with – there aren’t many sports like that.”
While one might expect the President of the International Table Tennis Federation to be slightly sniffy about hipsters playing for fun, actually the federation sees it as a positive change.
“In fact, it happened because we took an active role in making it happen,” says Adham Sharara. “When Susan Sarandon and her partners had the idea of opening a club, I visited New York to give them as much advice as I could. We invited them to attend top table tennis events around the world. So the cool factor has emerged for our sport and that’s great, although we also benefit from the fact that every celebrity in the world thinks they’re good at ping pong! They made the sport not only a novelty, but more attractive.”
Sharara also points to an interesting development in Japan, where a number of 24-hour convenience stores have installed ping pong tables, for hire by the hour. Sharara likens it to 1960s teeny boppers in the US hanging out at all-night hamburger joints. “It generates interest in the sport. There was a survey in a newspaper after last year’s Olympics, which suggested that the most touching moment for Japanese people was when their women players won the team silver medal. This surprised me, but it’s a fact.”
No wonder, then, that Sharara is positive about the burgeoning ping pong’n’pizza crowd. “We’re an underground sport, played everywhere but not visible enough,” says Sharara. “My hope is that we can change that.” As for Adam Breeden, he has reconfigured the layout of Bounce after just four months to cater for the incredible demand. It’s game, set and match to the hipsters.