The ping pong court at the Kasarani Indoor Arena in Nairobi is awash with the sound of balls slamming and coaches shouting. It is a practice session for the Kenya national team. I am here to have a sit down with Fahd Daim, a veteran in the African ping pong field, and now a patron of the Kenyan ping pong team. On the side, however, I am quick to notice a strange yet seemingly familiar face, Assar Omar, Africa’s highest ranking on the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) ranks on the sidelines. He is in Kenya on personal business.
When the session takes a break, Assar joins us for the conversation. Thoughts and ideas about ping pong are shared across the table. The issue of Egypt’s dominance in Africa is discussed for quite some time. Then the conversation gravitates smoothly to why China is the lion of the ping pong jungle.
Why the Chinese Team is unbeatable at Ping Pong
Ping pang (as the Chinese call it) is the national sport of China. Literally speaking, China owns the game, the rest of the world just borrows it. It is built on Chinese culture, down to the roots.
China has been the face of ping pong during all the recent Olympics. They completed a clean sweep in 2012, then replicated the same feat in 2016. On the other hand, the Chinese have also been the face of every table tennis open in the world. The current ITTF world rankings clearly show that. Fan Zhengdong, Xu Xin and Lin Gaoyuan, all Chinese nationals, are the three highest-ranking male players in the sport currently. Even Germany’s Timo Boll, who has been the top player for many years is struggling to catch up with the Chinese teams.
On average, Fahd Daim who has lived in Shanghai says, 10 million Chinese people play ping pong in a single day. This explains why the country has ruled the ping pong tables in virtually every global competition. Assar reminds us how China is so good at the game, that the Olympics committee had to create rules stipulating that a country can only have two players participating in the game after the 2008 Olympics. This was an attempt to stifle the Chinese dominance of the event. It obviously did not work. The Chinese table tennis team went on to win the 2012 Olympics, and again in 2016, all of them clean sweeps.
Fahd and Assar go on to list six reasons why both of them have never scooped a medal against any Chinese team in their time.
A large talent pool to choose from
Ping pong is ingrained in Chinese culture. While many countries, including African ones, have only one “World Class” ping pong player, China has a pool of immense talent. At the Chinese National Training Center, the number of quality professional players is simply unbelievable.
This talent pool is often drawn straight from the locals. Children learn how to play ping pong at a young age, they grow their skills over time. When they reach a professional stage, they are encouraged to get better by the prospects of representing the country in International Sporting events.
Since the talent pool is so large, you are not safe even if you reach the upper echelons of the Chinese team. Players can be pushed out by younger ones at a moments notice. Fahd Daim says that “ he has never seen two Chinese ping pong teams that look the same.” According to him, the scorecards of “who is the top player in China” keep changing so much that you never know which team you will go up against. What he is sure of, is the fact that every time he met a Chinese opponent, he received a “thrashing.”
Lin Gaoyuan the highest ranking Chinese player on the ITTF standings is no old name in the game. He is only 23. His burst into the ping pong limelight at the Asia cup Championships in 2017, beating more experienced players from his own country along the way.
The Chinese Technique
“I have not seen anything like the Chinese technique in table tennis,” says Fahd. Assar nods in agreement.
In China, a huge emphasis is put on having “ the correct technique.” Young players in China adopt styles so rigid, that their actions at the table become robotic. For many people, this type of training may seem boring, but it lays down the foundation of Chinese’s domination in ping pong.
Assad says he and the Egyptian national team received training in China before the 2016 Olympics. He also says that he thought the training would be all about new tactics, advanced shots and playing patterns, but the coaches were not interested in any new tactics to his surprise. It was all about the basics and the technique of his strokes. They spent most of the time doing backhands and forehands, only “ better than they were used to.” By the end of the week, he opines that they felt that they were far better players than they had been.
Quality Team Selection
The Chinese are known for their ruthless selection tactics when it comes to the National Team. They base everything on merits. When older more experienced players are seen to be a bit too comfortable for the team, they are thrown out, and fresh blood is injected into the team. Fahd says that one of his old friends, an ex-Chinese national team player was thrown out of the cast for “having a physique that was likely to struggle with injuries.”
On one hand, this ruthlessness brings a lot of quality hands into the team. On the other hand, it means that resources are given only to those who have the physical and mental ability to survive the stringent training that the members of the team have to go through before any international sporting event.
The Chinese Training Style
At the 2018 World Championships, Assad says he met a player who “would anticipate his every move as if he had played with him for all of his life.” While it visibly surprised him, he has come to learn that the process of training, for the Chinese national team, involves playing with partners who have been trained to mimic the playing style, and moves of the opponent each player going to meet.
Sometimes, according to Larry Hodges, a reporter for Reuters, the player has two player partners, each mimicking an opponent’s style playing against them. It means they adapt to virtually every challenge that will be thrown their way in the real game.
Fahd, on the other hand, contends that the Chinese work ethic plays an important role in the training of ping pong players for the Chinese National team. He says that on average, Chinese professional players do six-hour training sessions, seven days a week. Playing with personal partners and coaches means that players like Assad and others across the world have an uphill task when they meet any Chinese opponent on the floor.
Funding and support from the Chinese Government
Having lived in Shanghai, Fahd says that government policies play a huge part in setting up the systems for any sports. He recants the experience of seeing ping pong tables in literally every park in the city, which means that the ping pong experience is practically at everyone’s doorstep.
In addition, the Chinese government has created a system of specialization for children with talent in sports. Fahd says that children in China are tested for skills at a really young age. They are then moved to specialist athletic training schools. In China, children talented in table tennis and badminton attend special schools where they are set aside to grow their talents. It starts as early as from the age of five.
Fahd says that he is sure yours truly can’t beat a 12-year-old Chinese player. I am an amateur at the game. At 12, the child is a professional full-time ping pong player. After doing the background research for this article, I honestly cannot argue with that.
The Kenyan national team players start heading back to the tables. The break is over. Fahd and Assar have to go back to giving instructions and training the budding talents of Africa.
I asked whether they think any players can dislodge Fan Zhengdong, Xu Xin and Lin Gaoyuan from the top three of the ITTF world rankings for men. Assad says, “as things stand now, only the Chinese can dislodge the Chinese”.
Can the world ever catch up with China in ping pong? Fahd also says no. It is their game. They own it. They play it. The rest of the world borrows from them.
Featured photo credit to nytimes