Ping Pong Patriots

Summer, even late summer, means tennis for many who love the warm weather, the sunshine, and the great outdoors. And for those of us who hate to swelter and prefer to get our exercise in air-conditioned splendor, there’s always indoor tennis. The tabletop game goes by many names: table tennis and Ping Pong sound familiar, but some early players knew it as Gossima, Whiff Whaff, parlour tennis, Pom-Pom, Netto, or tennis de salon. According to historians, it began among the upper class in Britain in the 1880s as a parlor game in which the players used books or cigar-box lids for rackets, a cork from dinner’s champagne bottle for a ball, and books lined up on their spines for the net at the center of the table. As the game grew in popularity, manufacturers offered game sets of rackets, a net, and a ball made of celluloid. The new material made the ball produce a unique sound—ping pong—against the paddle and the tabletop and gave the game its alliterative name.

By the 20th century, the game had spread to the United States, and manufacturing giant Parker Brothers acquired exclusive use of the name Ping Pong for its table tennis sets. Other American manufacturers sold sets under different names. Enthusiasm for table tennis intensified competition among players. Game equipment evolved to keep up with a faster game and more aggressive playing styles. Early cigar box lids and even books gave way to rackets (in the U.S.A. we call them paddles) made of parchment stretched over a round frame. In 1903, E. C. Goode offered a racket made of wood covered with dimpled rubber that increased the speed and spin of the ball, picking up the pace of the game even further.

Speed suited the Jazz Age of the 1920s, moving table tennis far beyond the parlor and into the world of competitive play. Parker Brothers, for example, staged tournaments throughout the United States, ensuring that only its Ping Pong equipment was used in competition. In 1926 top players from England, Sweden, Hungary, India, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Wales, and Czechoslovakia founded the International Table Tennis Federation which held the first official world championship for the game in London the following year. By 1933 American enthusiasts had organized the United States Table Tennis Association (known these days as USA Table Tennis) and joined in the world competitions. The game also spread to Asia and, by the 1960s, players representing the People’s Republic of China came to dominate the sport—an advantage they still maintain.

Table tennis, though, is more than a game.

Anyone might rightfully wonder what Ping Pong humiliation the People’s Republic had in mind for the U.S. table tennis team when the government offered the Americans an all-expenses-paid trip to China in spring of 1971. (Only a handful of Americans had visited China since the communists took control in 1949.) The American team toured China for seven days, staging exhibition tournaments with Chinese players (and, yes, losing every single game), sightseeing at the Great Wall and other sites, and meeting Chinese people in factories, universities, and cities. American journalists, allowed in China for the first time, too, delighted folks back home with reports of the team’s travels. The thaw in relations between the United States and China became known as Ping Pong diplomacy and helped lead to Richard Nixon becoming the first U.S. president to visit China. The lives of American and Chinese people, of course, have been increasingly intertwined ever since.

It seems that Ping Pong makes its own warm climes. We needn’t enjoy it only in summer. Table tennis, anyone?