From its origins as an after-dinner entertainment game to its current status as an Olympic sport, Will Jones takes a look back at table tennis history
Making a meal of it
According to legend, table tennis was invented in 19th-century England as an after-dinner entertainment; it was played by guests at the dining table, using the lids of cigar boxes for rackets and a champagne cork in place of a ball.
What’s in a name?
Many early variants of the sport were developed, trademarked and sold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At various points, the public played ‘ping-pong’, ‘gossima’, ‘parlour tennis’, ‘whiff-whaff’ and ‘netto’, all direct precursors to today’s sport of table tennis.
Table tennis changed dramatically in the 1950s when players started using racquets embedded with sponge, bringing more spin and subtlety to the often-frantic sport.
Having a ball
The first celluloid table tennis balls were manufactured in the early 1900s, and proved an immediate hit with players who had previously played with balls made of cork or rubber. Today, International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) rules specify that the ball must have a diameter of 40 millimetres – an increase of 2 millimetres since 2000, designed to help slow down the sport.
In 1971, table tennis played an unexpected but vital role in building relations between China and the USA. Fifteen American players spent 10 days touring China and playing exhibition matches in what became known as ‘Ping-Pong Diplomacy’.
In order to study the effects caused by avalanches, a group of Japanese scientists once released 550,000 table tennis balls down the Miyanomori Ski Jump – the ski-jumping venue for the 1972 Olympic Winter Games.
China rules the roost
Since table tennis joined the Olympic programme in 1988, Chinese athletes have dominated the sport. The Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) boasts an astonishing success story, with the national team, which is sponsored by Dubai, winning 28 of the 32 Olympic gold medals on offer.