Monday, July 14, 2008

"table tennis" or "ping pong" part 2 - steph

So, as Atha has mentioned in a previous blog, my opinion does not necessarily reflect hers, and our opinions on the question of whether to call the sport "table tennis" or "ping pong" is a perfect example. In my eyes, there are two extremes: people who call the sport "ping pong" and have absolutely no issues doing so, and people who call the sport "table tennis", cringe at hearing "ping pong", and look down on those who have no problem with "ping pong". Then, of course, there are people, like Atha, who use the name "table tennis" and "ping pong" interchangably. I personally use "table tennis" and I have issues saying "ping pong". However, I don't admonish anyone who says "ping pong" and I don't go around insisting that people say "table tennis". While Atha and I may have different opinions on the name of the sport, we ultimately have the same opinion: there is simply not enough coverage of competitive (aka "real") table tennis in the US. Because of the lack of exposure to the general public, ping pong is thought of as just a basement sport and is not differentiated from the competitive sport simply because people just don't know better.

Like I said, I'm partial to "table tennis" for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that, no matter what people may prefer to call the sport, the official governing body of the sport, both internationally (ITTF) and in the US (USATT), recognize the sport as "table tennis". While it may be true that in Chinese, the sport is called "乒乓" (pronounced as ping pong), its name in every other language is the direct translation of table tennis (eg "tenis de mesa" in Spanish, and "tischtennis" in German). However, even China's official governing body is called the CTTA...

The next reason I prefer "table tennis" is that "ping pong" just sounds silly to me. However, this brings me back to my (and Atha's) original point: the image and idea that come to mind when a non-table tennis athlete thinks "ping pong" differs drastically from those that come to mind for a table tennis athlete/coach. For example, and I'm sure this has happened for almost everyone, when you say, "yeah, I play table tennis," someone else says, "oh, you mean ping pong?", waves his/her hands around in the air and then says "yeah I'm really good at that". Then you end up smiling and nodding awkwardly, knowing that the person you're talking to has never seen the level of intensity at the North American Teams Championships, held yearly in Baltimore, MD, or at Nationals, and just knowing that the two of you are clearly visualizing two very different things.

Now, I'm not trying to be elitist, condescending, or arrogant; everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion and can call the sport anything they want. But, something definitely needs to be done to change the sport's image. As Atha mentioned in her post, when old ladies at country clubs say that they play tennis, nobody will confuse "old geezer" tennis with Roger Federer tennis, and nobody will say that tennis' image is marred and damaged by "old geezers". Similarly, nobody will say that kids who play baseball in empty lots make baseball look bad. And the list goes on and on. The reason for this is that sports are a big part of our culture; go channel surfing and you're sure to see games from the NBA, MLB, NFL, NSL, NHL (and note that the sports on primetime TV and the sports that are heavily advertised are exclusively male leagues, but that's a whole 'nother issue), so no matter where you look, you see professional athletes at the top of their games, earning millions of dollars because of their skills. The table tennis scene, however, is a completely different story. The extent of major media coverage of table tennis has been, as Atha mentioned, Killerspin in Chicago (which was aired at the strangest, most nonsensical times possible), and, unfortunately, the movie "Balls of Fury". Basically, the general public has never gotten the chance to see what I've seen and is unused to the idea of professional, or even Olympic, table tennis.

Finally, I have to say that while I agree that the basement is a great place for table tennis players to start out, and that it is a crucial part to the grassroots movement, I disagree with the idea that basement table tennis is the future of table tennis in the US. The basement is where a lot of people, including me, start playing and grow to like the sport. However, solely playing in your basement is not the way to up your game. You're not going to get better with practice alone; who you practice with makes all the difference. The issue of practice and practice partners could be a whoooooole other post, but my point is that table tennis HAS to come out of the basement and it most definitely needs to shed its image of it being just a game. My point is that table tennis is more than just a game. It is a huge commitment and, like any other sport, requires a lot of time, effort, and energy. Not everyone will pursue table tennis seriously, and I respect that, but those who really want to compete absolutely cannot limit themselves to their basements. And, yes, people definitely still play basketball on rundown courts, but there are summer camps, summer programs, clinics, etc., in quality facilities (an example is Hoop Zone, near my house on Rt 4. East in Englewood, NJ). The grassroots system we have in the US, as a whole, is not sufficient. It is not enough to get a bunch of people interested in table tennis; people need to see it at its best to really appreciate table tennis as a "legitimate" sport, but the only way for this to happen is more exposure, more education, better coaches, more people who know what they're talking about, and more people who can teach fundametals and basics. For example, the basics for sports like basketball, baseball, tennis, and American football are widely taught to children at an extremely young age, and, for the most part, kids really do build solid fundamental skills in these sports because whoever taught them (parents/coaches/gym class/etc.) essentials like how to properly throw a baseball or a football, and how to dribble a basketball. In contrast, basement ping pong is learned/taught by grabbing a racket and improvising until people can manage to somehow get the ball across the table. The problem with improvising is just that; you may find a stroke you're comfortable with and that gets the ball across the table a few times, but without knowledge of the basics, you will only have limited success. Again, not everyone is looking to be a world-class player, but the problem is that the highest level the average person envisions is probably the equivalent to the level of little league baseball. The issue is simply that people don't know what kind of table tennis is out there.

So, back to the original question. Is it "table tennis" or is it "ping pong"? It's really a matter of opinion. The two different names can carry two different implications for different people. But no matter what name you use, it all boils down to this point: the typical perception of the game in the US does absolutely no justice to the sport. People just do not know enough about the sport at the international, world-class level, but this is an easily fixable problem.

5 comments:

Tsoi Dug said...

Yes, I want ping pong to be a big time sport in the US too, that's why I am saying that the last 20 plus years of US "table tennis" trying to dissociate itself from the term "ping pong" is misguided and counter-productive.

You see, the typical perception of the game in the US is not going to be improved by people in the sport putting down those of us, and there are way, way more of us than "real" players, those of us who only play the sport as a past-time, saying that we are not good enough to be associated with them, making us feel bad every time we pick up a racket that we are somehow besmirching the image of those whom we would like to think of as our sports heroes. So we just... quit promoting the sport! We quit playing it with our friends and neighbors, and we quit telling them, after having played a game in the basement when they come over, how, even though they may think we are good, the real ahtletes are SO-OOO much better, and showing some world class ping pong videos over some beer...

So while I don't mind people calling it table tennis, I do think that people who are good at it should stop telling others, "Don't call this ping pong - ping pong is what you play in the basement; this is table tennis!" That is neither polite to those who play in the basement nor conducive to the popularity of the sport.

Steph said...

I completely agree with you that it is out of line for people to make others feel badly for calling it "ping pong"; I have never liked the former sort of people and have never condoned that sort of obnoxiousness, and I myself have never told anyone not to call it "ping pong". The problem of the sport being unpopular, like I said, has to do with the lack of exposure. For example, kids who play basketball purely for fun and who don't play on school teams or rec teams, etc. do nothing to detract from the NBA's image, because everybody is well aware of the levl of NBA basketball. Table tennis simply doesn't have the numbers; not enough people play with the intention to be a top player. So really, basement players aren't the problem... the problem, like you said, are those condescending players who think the world of themselves. But I still insist that the answer to the problems is more media, more exposure to world class table tennis.

We appreciate your input, and I just want to make it clear that I am in no way trying to attack your opinion or inflate the status of so-called "real players". The one point that Atha and I were trying to stress is that for table tennis to be taken seriously as a sport, it has to be treated and portrayed as such

Anonymous said...

It’s ping pong and will always be ping pong. It’s forever going to be just a dumpy basement recreational activity thanks to the no vision USATT Board. Most US clubs are pretty dumpy and table tennis in the US is a complete joke. Ping pong or table tennis? It doesn't matter because nobody really cares about the sport, and that's the way the USATT Board likes it!

Atha said...

Hi Anonymous. I'd be interested in hearing what you would change about the situation. And what would you improve about the USATT Board?

john said...

The USATT is under this foolish notion that if an American wins an Olympic medal or a junior becomes a world class player, then it will transform table tennis in this country. It won’t. The USATT needs to focus on the biggest market, the beginner/recreational market. There are millions of US adults and kids waiting to get hooked on table tennis, but they’re always sent the message that if you’re not going to be an elite player, keep out. The USATT has failed miserably presenting the table tennis option to US recreational players, and it’s no surprise that membership levels always remain around 7000 – 8000. It’s pretty simple. The USATT needs to dramatically grow the active, dues-paying members and focus on building new clubs. Every year, USATT rests on the hope that a new crop of juniors will come along to transform the sport, but it never happens. The facilities are not in place to support juniors that come along. Sadly, table tennis will always remain a basement, dead-end sport until the USATT changes the focus away from elite players and onto recreational players, who can supply the numbers and dollars to build the sport. Even junior development is focused on elite junior development, because the entire focus is on elite players. To get a Michael Phelps on the gold medal podium 8 times in Beijing took thousands of swim teams at schools for a lot of kids who may have only been seeking to participate in and enjoy a school sport. Instead of recognizing the sorry state of facilities in this country and the pathetic number of regular participants, what’s the US trying to do? Get someone on the podium in 2016 by focusing on a very small number of players with elite potential. The result: failure year in, year out. The money’s spent but there’s nothing to show for it. It would be easier to transform table tennis in this country without the involvement of the US Table Tennis leadership – they seem completely clueless on how to get things done in the real world!