Thursday 14 August 2008

Day 6: Ping Pong!

It's Day 6 of the Olympics, so I'm busy writing erotic fan fictions featuring Hazel Irvine, Sue Barker and a visit to a honey factory. Relief comes in the form of televised coverage of sporting events! And yesterday did not disappoint me, as I enjoyed the Men's Team match between South Korea and Sweden in the Table Tennis. An Olympic sport which is also beloved of social workers and prison inmates is always a strong start, plus it is another activity which is very easy to understand and pick up when you are a spectator.

The table tennis had everything to keep me entertained. Firstly, the rules are straightforward, and even the format - a best-of-five rubber format with four singles matches and a doubles in the middle - is familiar to anyone who has seen the Davis or Fed Cups in Big Tennis. However, it's the little things which really enlivened yesterday's contest for me. For a start, the umpire was a heftily built bloke with big fuzzy hair, wearing a powder blue blazer, grey slacks and a white tie. He was, to all extents and purposes, Chubby Checker. I was delighted. The other umpire, in charge of calling the scores and mopping up sweat from the table with towels, marks the game progress with little score flip-cards. Like Blankety Blank. Marvellous.

The gameplay itself also had surprises in store. Having seen competitive table tennis before, I was ready for the bewildering array of sleight-of-hand services the players will try to bamboozle their opponents. I was even ready for the size and scale of the arena. But it's still a remarkable sight. During the most spirited rallies, the two athletes are standing at opposite sides of the room, hitting a ping pong ball towards a tiny blue rectangle somewhere in the middle. I imagine good eyesight is a requisite for top players. When viewed as tennis on a small scale, Table Tennis at the top level is an oddly confrontational sport. Penned in on all sides, the players are by far and away the bigest things in the game arena. The doubles looks not dissimilar to a fight in a pub car park. A peculiarity of the game of doubles in Table Tennis is that the competitors have to hit alternatively - hugely handy for the attribution of blame - so maybe a brawl isn't too far off after all.

This sport also offers the greatest solution ever devised to any sport where keeping a ball within a specified game area is significant to the outcome. I have written before at my dislike of the Hawkeye system in tennis, because it effectively makes the show courts slightly different arenas in terms of rules as well as scale to the smaller courts or lesser events. People arguing for goalline technology in football offer identical arguments: it is wrong to introduce new gadgets at the top level of a professional global game which will not be available elsewhere in the pyramid. All or none, in other words.

In Table Tennis, the answer is simple. Was the ball in? Well, did it hit the table?

For football, tennis and rugby, the writing is now on the wall. Hawkeye and Video Replays are hugely useful tools, but they should not be for the big boys only. Either make provisions for global availablity for everyone in the professional game, or start to play on a giant table. Did it cross the goal line? Yes, it fell off the table. Was the ball in? Yes, it hit the table. Was that a try? Yes, the man holding the ball just fell head-first off the table.

Today's other sport

Archery. I have enjoyed this sport immensely, too. All the pregnant drama of darts with none of the cholesterol problems. This morning, China made history in the women's singles by beating South Korea for the first time ever in Olympic competition. Yesterday's game, in an earlier knockout round, was totally spoilt for me by Eddie Butler commentating on a game featuring a British competitor which wasn't even being televised, whilst a completely different match took place in front of us. Not impressed, Eddie.

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