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Paddling over: a foreigner's first ping-pong match
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By Adriane Quinlan

and Celine Chen
China.org.cn Staff Reporter

I'm an American. And in America, TV networks covering the Olympics often show a lot of track and field, swimming, and gymnastics. Those are sports Americans are good at.

In America, families play ping-pong for fun. College students play a version of the game that combines it with beer. And all together, we don't take the sport seriously.

So until I moved to Beijing, I had never seen a match on television.

Here everyone plays the sport well. On my neighborhood's public tables, I've seen very young and very old players who could easily defeat the best I've seen in the US.

So when it came to buying Olympic tickets, I really wanted tickets to a ping-pong match.

I found a single seat at a men's "Team" semi-final, the first year that "Team" is on the roster for Olympic ping-pong.

Early in the morning before the match I was happy to check online that the lineup would be China versus South Korea.

In 2004 in Athens, Korean Seung Min Ryu won the men's single's event against a Chinese player. So South Korea was the only real threat to oust China in this year's games. I was about to see a match between the host country, where I have lived for nearly a year, and the defending champion.

After riding on a crowded subway full of other fans wearing "China, Add Oil!" shirts and ribbons, I arrived at the stadium at Peking University.

Past security, I saw another long line.

"Oh no!" I thought, "Not another wait!"

But it was just Beijingers in the Olympic spirit, waiting their turn to take a picture with a Fuwa!

And then beyond that line, I saw the stadium.

Standing atop of a tall flight of steps, the Peking University stadium is very impressive. It is the first stadium built exclusively for Ping-pong, with air-conditioning that keeps air movement to a minimum by coming up from under the seats.

I was excited to get inside. My seat, when I found it, turned out to be very, very high up. Since ping-pong is played with such a small ball, I found it funny that the stadium seats went so far up from the action. It's a good indication of how popular ping-pong is -- it can easily sell out a stadium this size.

In the stands, there were not many foreigners. Most of the viewers were Chinese and very excited to root for their home-team. I was definitely ready to root for China. I even brought the Chinese flag.

Ten minutes before the match started, a video explained the rules. I was probably the only person there who needed to pay attention. The video said, "Ping pong in the Olympics is a symbol of cultural exchange between the East and the West." I was living proof.

When the teams entered the stadium, the crowd whooped. They clearly knew the players and the coach. I had expected the crowd to be quieter, more serene, because I thought of ping-pong as a sport that took a lot of concentration -- like fencing or archery. Nope, in the stands it was like being at a crowded American baseball game, where the fans are over-excited and drinking beer.

The game was divided into three sections. In the first two, each Chinese player singly faced a Korean player. Then, in the third part, the doubles-teams from each country squared off.

The first match was China's Ma Lin versus Korea's Oh Sang Eun. Ma Lin was smaller than Oh Sang Eun and less able to dart around, but he hit with better accuracy. Long volleys were crowd pleasers -- very suspenseful -- and when Ma Lin missed a shot the crowd let out a long, loud sigh.

We went crazy when Ma Lin won but it was quite close.

He won in a point-break. And the crowd went wild!

Watching the match, it was interesting to see how much the players ran. A referee even had to towel their sweat off the table! And I thought this would be serene!

When the next set of players came out, everyone cheered. The matchup was Wang Hao, who competed for China in Athens, versus Ryu Seung Min, who won gold against him.

Wang was the one player I recognized from TV and the paper. With his shock of dyed hair, he is easy to remember.

The crowd was so excited that the TVs told us to "Please keep quiet when the player serves."

This time, Wang seemed to win quite easily.

At intermission a Fuwa came out and did a little dance to liven us up even more. A video asked us to do the "Mexican wave," which I found very funny since we don't call it the "Mexican" wave in America, just "the wave.”

Then the teams came out -- Wang Hao was back, and paired with a new player, Wang Liqin. I loved to see how they moved. They didn't just stand at the back of the table, but circled all the sides. It was very athletic. The ball was moving so quickly it was hard to follow.

When China won easily, no one was very surprised. China will win this year, as it has won nearly every other Olympic table-tennis event, because this is a country that takes Ping-Pong very seriously.

Now if only American TV could show Chinese ping-pong, then we could really learn something from the masters. I plan to go out to the neighborhood courts this weekend and learn the game from someone who can really play.

(China.org.cn August 25, 2008)

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