Dented balls, a droopy net, and that weird basement-smell come to mind when I think of Ping-Pong. Growing up, every other house had a ping-pong table, but none of them fully functional, and all of them in dark, deserted corners where exposed light-bulbs with dangling chains cast creepy shadows on the table tops.
That last time I connected paddle with ball was circa 1997. I was at summer camp and clearly, it was raining. I can honestly say that was the last time I actually saw a ping-pong table. Air-hockey tables, foosball tables, pool tables, they've all graduated past the basement and have made it into bars, hotel lobbies, and even casinos. Not so for poor Ping-Pong table; he's still in your garage, folded up, one bent leg and one splintery paddle short of a good time. That is - until your future freshman in college comes home and takes out the dilapidated table to use not for Ping, but for another member of the Pong family: the foreign, drunken cousin, Beer-Pong.
Refusing to believe that evolution has allowed Beer-Pong to eradicate Ping-Pong, I turned to the only person I knew could help: Bob Costas. When he didn't return my emails, I turned to the second thing I knew could help: the internets. Could it be that I'm just entirely out of the loop on the Ping-Pong resurgence? Are there games being played in my very apartment building right now that I know nothing about? And if so, why wasn't I invited? One might not say that I'm particularly neighborly, but I always bring snacks.
Nevertheless, like any good American anticipating Friday's Opening Ceremony, I went to the official Olympic website to get official, Olympic facts on Ping-Pong. And wouldn't you know it; that dusty table with cobwebs underneath, with the net that just won't stay up, and those godforsaken and dented, unusable balls is celebrating its 20th year as an Olympic sport! Yeah that's right: sport.
With over 40 million competitive players worldwide, Ping-Pong is most certainly sweeping the globe. It's the world's largest participation sport, and besides that cool 40 mill that are competitive, there are millions upon millions just ping-ponging for fun. So...carry the one...Ping-Pong has gone from a rainy-day basement past-time to a prime player on the world's stage.
But the journey wasn't easy. Ping-Pong started in England in the late 19th century as a refined, after-dinner substitute for lawn tennis. Back then the paddles were made of cigar-box lids and the balls were widdled from champagne corks. These days, players use advanced and specifically designed rubber-coated wooden and carbon-fiber rackets and a lightweight, hollow celluloid ball. Even the glue plays a part--certain glues applied to rackets create greater spin and speed, and certain glues that make the ball travel up to 20 mph faster are banned from the Games.
So, to answer my earlier question, yes; odds are someone right now within a three mile radius of me is playing Ping-Pong. A hobby that was once reserved for dorks with basements is now so prolific that there are neighborhood leagues (one in Brooklyn!) with schedules and free t-shirts and everything!
So Ping-Pong, your decades-long voyage from broken and neglected to exalted and popular is inspirational. Although I was a dork as a kid, I regret that you and I didn't get along. I just couldn't quite get good enough to enjoy what you had to offer. So while I was upstairs playing Mario Kart, Zhang Yining was downstairs hitting balls and waxing paddles. She now has a Gold Medal and I now have poor night vision and road-rage. You win again, Ping-Pong, you always do. But I got to say, I'm glad to see you've become so successful in the 21st century. Hope to see you in Brooklyn soon. Rematch!
Follow Lindsay Mannering on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LindsayVirginia