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Pingpong diplomacy in the nooks and crannies of Beijing

BEIJING 2008 : BILL PLASCHKE

August 14, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

BEIJING — The net is a combination of metal and Scotch tape. The playing surface is stone and scratched.

The surroundings are a city park, the players are lean and sweating, and everyone stands in a circle waiting to see who's got next.

Welcome to Chinese playground pingpong.

And, um, I've got next.

"You want to play me?" Wang Qing says through an interpreter.

Wearing low-slung jeans and a faded orange T-shirt, he sets a paddle upright on my side of the table, balances it perfectly on its handle, and walks to the other side with a stare.

Game on. Game over. His serves send me lunging into the bushes. His backhand volleys push me back into the mud.

Fittingly, one of the unwritten rules of pickup pingpong is that if you lose the point, you must pick up your ball no matter how many people are standing around it.

I spend the next 20 minutes picking up balls out of puddles, gutters and amused spectators' sandals. I pick up so many balls I strain my back. I am exhausted. They are laughing. He is laughing.

"You are the best player I have ever seen," I say.

"You are one of the worst," he says.

Wang Qing is 13.

Welcome to China's national pastime, in the Olympics, in my face.

------

Appropriately, Olympic table tennis began play Wednesday in a Peking University gym that feels like "Hoosiers."

Narrow sections rise like little balconies from the floor, the chants of spectators washing over the athletes below, a cramped but cozy home.

"Guo Yue!" chanted one red-tattooed fan, screaming the name of an athlete.

"Chi-na!" the crowded chanted back in a throaty accent that could have come straight from Indiana.

Like basketball in the U.S., table tennis -- yes, it's also acceptable here to call it pingpong -- is China's neighborhood sport.

Like U.S. basketball, it is also China's most dominant sport, with the country winning 16 of 20 possible gold medals since table tennis joined the Olympics in 1988.

It is so dominant, the players who don't make the national team somehow end up on other teams -- seemingly every other team.

In Wednesday night's women's team competition, the Dominican Republic was led by Lian Qian, Austria was led by Jia Liu, and, batting leadoff for the United States, was Chen Wang.

Also like U.S. basketball, pingpong is their sport with the most independent expression.

On the opening night, China's female players kissed their paddles, blew on the balls, pumped their fists, rubbed the table, and slammed down their feet when serving.

It is the only sport where the otherwise-polite Chinese fans cheer wildly when the opponent makes a mistake.

It is the only sport where the otherwise-polite Chinese athletes keep pounding on that mistake by staring and stalking.

After Guo won a match against Xue Wu of the Dominican Republic, she slammed her paddle on the table, spun on her heels, and walked away.

Sort of like my opponent did after crushing me a day earlier on the playground.

My 47-year-old housewife opponent.

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We found the pingpong playground simply by looking.

They're everywhere in Beijing, stone tables tucked into any available bit of green, China's sport mostly because it doesn't require much space.

This playground was alongside a busy street in Sun He village, a bedraggled collection of rocky roads near the airport.

On one side were belching warehouses, on the other side were belching buses. One block away, the street was filled with smelly gas and marching policemen. The rest of the park was packed with ancient exercise equipment used by howling children.

In the middle of this madness, surrounded by trees, there was pingpong peace.

"We play for our health," said Guo Shu Qiao, 60, a retired farmer from Mongolia. "It is a sport for the people."

Beijing police reportedly barred Mongolians from entering bars during the Olympics, fearing they would cause too much trouble.

But Guo is always welcome here at the table, where he shows up most every day from 6 to 8 a.m. and again from 4 p.m. until dark.

Like many here, he brings his own paddles and ball. And, like many, he plays all comers for all hours without keeping score.

Back and forth he volleys, saying little, rarely leaving his spot, sweat growing, until he finds his opponent's weakness and slams the ball off the court into the tree.

"We don't play to win. We play to learn about each other," he said.

Except, of course, when they play the foreigner.

During my two visits there, I lost to the 13-year-old boy, the 47-year-old housewife, and several assorted bystanders.

Sometimes somebody watching would keep score. Other times, we would just play until it was obvious I was whipped.

After I had exhausted my opponents and my novelty, I walked down the middle of the park looking for one more game, one more chance to win, when I felt a tug on my hand.

It was a 13-year-old girl dressed in jeans and a funky shirt. She simply walked up and grabbed my paddle.

She had next. She also had nothing.

She was terrible. She was worse than me. She flailed at most shots, showing none of the passion or ability of those gathered around her.

Afterward, she handed me her paddle and said quietly, in English, "Welcome to Beijing."

She may have been tanking it, or she may be truly awful, but either way, this game was obviously her gift to a poor sweat-soaked American in need of a boost.

Pingpong not only is China's national sport, but its national language, its national handshake, its national connection.

Playing to learn about each other, indeed.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read other columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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