There will be absolutely nothing diplomatic about the way China's table tennis stars summarily dispatch of the rest of the world at the Olympic tournament this year. Throughout the next few days I'll be highlighting the big Chinese stories of the Games - and we'll be doing all we can in Beijing to cover Team China in depth as well. China is reportedly bringing its largest-ever contingent of athletes to compete, and the one sport in which they're assured to boost their medals holdings of all colors is table tennis - pingpangqiu ("ping pong ball") in Mandarin.
In 2005 Shanghai hosted the world table tennis championships. It was the first time I'd seen the sport played live after months of watching it on Chinese television, and it was honestly one of the most exciting sports events I've ever witnessed. Everyone in China plays the game, so everyone is deeply knowledgeable about the athletes, the strategy, and the history. One of China's most famous sports celebrities, in fact, isn't Chinese at all: he's Swedish table tennis legend Jan-Ove Waldner, known in Chinese as "lao wa." "Wa" is the first syllable of his name when it's written using Chinese characters, and "lao" translates as either "old," or in this case "familiar" (like an old friend - somebody who is deeply known and trusted). Waldner didn't have his best outing in Shanghai that year, but the crowds were with him all the way - so much so, that he had to be escorted out of the stadium so that he wouldn't be overrun with autograph-seeking fans.
In Beijing, the Chinese team is full of superstars. The last two women's Olympic singles gold medalists, Zhang Yining (2004) and Wang Nan (2000) are on the squad; as is men's Sydney Olympic singles champ Wang Liqin. The two Wangs have also picked up three world championship titles apiece. To add another Wang to the mix (Wang is Chinese for "Smith" - a very, very popular surname) , the favorite on the men's side is Wang Hao. Ma Lin, the 2007 ITTF Pro Tour Grand Finals champ, rounds out the men's roster. Guo Yue, the precocious 2007 singles world champion, is the third women's entry for China.
If table tennis is your thing, be sure to check out the sport previews by the Associated Press (at IHT.com). The competition schedule can be found here. The official Olympic site for table tennis can be found here. And finally, here's the link to the International Table Tennis Federation website, for all international table tennis-related news.
And if you missed the great SI story about the real history behind the incident that led to "ping pong diplomacy" and the thaw in U.S.-China relations, penned by Alexander Wolff with David Davis' excellent background research, stop everything and click here. Right now. It's an excellent retrospective on what really happened the night a lone U.S. ping pong player found his way onto the Chinese team bus at the '71 world championships in Japan...and the rest is history.