Beijing Olympics

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Chitose Suzuki/AP
Chinese men's team member Wang Hao

Is China Losing Its Taste for Pingpong?

August 18, 2008 09:01 AM
by Denis Cummings
China continues to dominate international table tennis, but its popularity may be waning as younger generations are attracted to Western sports.

‘It is part of everything’

Pingpong has been a major part of China’s culture since the 1950s, when Mao Zedong declared it to be the national sport. China has been the world’s pingpong power ever since, and Chinese-born players are dominating this year’s Olympics playing for China and for other countries.

Chinese citizens are enamored with game, and people of all ages and backgrounds flock to play on tables in public parks. “It’s striking how much of China’s sporting identity is built around this one sport,” writes the Kansas City Star’s Joe Posnanski. “You see men and women, young and old, all playing interchangeably. Then you go back and turn on the television and four different channels feature Olympic table tennis. Then you open up a couple of Chinese newspapers, and you see table tennis photos and stories everywhere.”

However, Maureen Fan of The Washington Post believes that pingpong’s popularity is waning among China’s youth because other sports are gaining in popularity.

In preparation for hosting the Games, the Chinese Olympic Committee focused on developing world-class athletes in many sports where they have not traditionally excelled. As a result, China is having its best Olympics ever, thriving in sports like gymnastics and swimming.

Additionally, basketball has become incredibly popular ever since this year’s Olympic flag-bearer, Yao Ming, joined the NBA in 2002. Fans packed the arena to watch China’s opening game against the U.S., cheering for both Yao and their favorite NBA stars on the American team.

With the increasing popularity of so many sports, pingpong may be getting lost in the shuffle for younger generations. Kids who would once idolize a world-class pingpong player now idolize Yao or one of China’s gold-medal winning gymnasts.

However, most people believe that pingpong will remain entrenched in China’s national identity despite the rise of other sports. “Nowadays, people play many other kinds of sports,” says CCTV producer Li Jinjing. “But it doesn't mean that ping-pong can be replaced. China has 5,000 years of history, and after all this time, China is still irreplaceable.”

Historical Context: Pingpong in China

Pingpong was developed in England during the 1880s as a recreation for the upper class. It became a competitive sport in the early 20th century and an international organization—the International Table Tennis Federation—was formed in 1926 to hold international competitions.

The sport was popular in Britain and central Europe, but not particularly so in China. In the 1950s Mao Zedong chose ping-pong to be the national sport, in part because the ITTF was one of the only world sporting bodies to recognize China.

Mao used ping-pong as a propaganda tool, rallying the country around a sport in which it could excel. By 1959, Rong Guotuan won the World Championships, marking the beginning of China’s ping-pong dominance.

“The masses were mesmerized,” writes Matthew Syed in The Times of London. “Just as Mao had intended, international success proved the perfect antidote to the nation's battered self-esteem, something that would prove crucial in sustaining his legitimacy.”

Pingpong became interlocked with the Mao regime and Chinese society, so much so that it played a central role in a major diplomatic achievement. In 1971, the Mao government invited the American pingpong team into China, making them the first Americans allowed into the country since the Chinese Revolution in 1949. The event, known as “pingpong diplomacy,” facilitated the visit of President Richard Nixon 10 months later.

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