SAN FRANCISCO, August 4, 2012 — Nothing like the Olympic Games to make you realize what an earthbound slug you really are.
The Games are a scary sideshow of artfully sculpted freaks, alleged fellow humans with such highly refined athletic skills that they seem to have arrived in London from a distant planet, perhaps Krypton. They resemble us, sort of (despite a pronounced androgyny gene), but in fact they behave nothing like the rest of us.
Each athlete has spent the last four to 20 years in intense training – running, swimming or leaping six hours a day, leading Spartan lives, living on sunflower seeds and red meat, with no social or normal home life, residing in remote towns to train with demanding coaches as parents mortgage their own lives to support a 15-year-old kid’s bizarre talent for hurtling over cross beams or lifting 400 pounds or diving into water like a cormorant.
The only Olympic sport that most viewers can identify with is table tennis (or maybe badminton), in which the athletes look like real people. Their shoulders are not four feet across, like swimmers, their legs are not all sinewy knots, like runners and gymnasts, they have no washboard stomachs.
Table tennis is a game everybody has played. Any nerd can hit a Ping-Pong ball. It is indeed the sport of nerds. If racing is the sport of kings, table tennis is the sport of paupers.
I’ve been an avid, if mediocre, table tennis player the last five years, first at a rec center and now in my basement, where I play friends two or three days a week, maybe 25 games in all, working up a slight sweat, getting the heart rate up a bit, lunging to and fro – a little cardio, much stretching. It requires no strength, speed, musculature — or even practice, just a little hand-eye coordination. You can be any size, any age, with or without a tight core or taut quads and abs. It’s the world’s most democratic sport.
Our basement Ping-Pong games, however slashing they often seem with incredible rallies and come-from-behind wins and wild shots that magically hit the edge, have nothing to do with Olympic table tennis – played by people, mainly Asians, at such a frenzied pace that it looks like another game completely. They use paddles and tiny balls, as we do, and they play at the same sort of table, but that’s where all similarities end.
Table tennis champs’ whirling top-spin serves can take off your head, and their violent returns are hard to follow even if you’re just watching, let alone playing – 170 miles-per-hour rockets that actually hit the table at a wicked slant and are volleyed back with equal manic velocity. Olympic table tennis is only 11 points, not 21, for some odd reason.
Yet even basement table tennis takes huge focus — following the ball, figuring out your opponent’s position, deciding where you want to aim the shot to catch him/her off-guard, and then actually executing the shot more or less as planned – all this in a second or two.
My weekly regular rival, Al, has a smashing forehand, as I do not, and a topsy-turvy spin serve, which I do not. My best serve, which I learned at Al’s elbow, is a deft shot with a little spin that occasionally even handcuffs him.
He puts me away regularly, but now and then I win one or we even go into overtime. So given my meager skills, I manage to give him a decent game some of the time – thanks to a few lucky net flicks, as I call them. I feel I should win every volley, but stuff happens – like I choke, smack shots into the net or whiff entirely. But so does Al or, for that matter, even Ariel Tsing, the Bay Area Olympic women’s champ.
Al despairs that I refuse to learn how to hit a forehand smash with topspin, but I’m unable to master it or just lack the patience to learn it. No matter. I try to compensate for my flimsy forehand with brilliant strategic moves that often pay off, if not often enough to whip my opponents, three of whom wallop me fairly regularly.
The speed, spirit and sheer joy of it all more than makes up for a few blown serves, lame shots and humiliating losses. Part of the fun is Al and I calling the game as we play, sort of a game within a game, lobbing sportscast clichés back and forth (“Nachman, the aging favorite with the heart of a champion, refuses to crumble despite his rival’s fierce play”).
Table tennis is a vastly unappreciated game that may finally be taking hold, and maybe is even on the cusp of becoming a fad. Susan Sarandon is part owner in a famous table tennis club in New York, Spin. If the U.S. had a great Olympic table tennis gold medal winner, like the great Marty Reisman (still playing deep into his 80s), it might just push the parlor game over the top and turn it into a craze.
For now, it remains about where bowling is, but really is far more demanding than bowling – more of a workout, livelier, calling on many more athletic skills. Once you can throw a bowling ball in a straight line, you’ve pretty much done all you can do, but table tennis requires a keen eye, a rapid hand and a knack for outfoxing your opponent.
The main downside to table tennis is chasing the elusive ball, which you needn’t worry about in bowling, and even tennis has ball boys. For those in my basement senior league, running down balls, ferreting them out of nooks and crannies, and bending over to pick up the ball 20 times a game is the major challenge, calling for sturdier backs and more flexible knees. The other major challenge for addled geezers is remembering the score.
Yet I am often able to beat my well-toned masseur, Kevin, an Irish footballer nearly 50 years my junior, which is its own reward. He’s a good lad, as they say, and when he reaches my age on wobbly knees and has long since had to quit football, he’ll still be able to play a rugged, red hot game of table tennis. Your serve!
Gerald Nachman is the author of several humor and entertainment books, most recently Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America; Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s; and Raised on Radio about the golden age of radio. For years Nachman was a critic and syndicated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Daily News. For more on Mr. Nachman go to: geraldnachman.com
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