Image: Gao Jun
ISSOUF SANOGO  /  AFP/Getty Images
U.S. table tennis Olympian Gao Jun readies for a serve. Table tennis is akin to NCAA March Madness in China as a national sport.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/21/2008 7:04:34 AM ET 2008-08-21T11:04:34
THE OLYMPICS BUZZ

This is an ongoing series of Olympics cultural reports Sunny Wu is filing from Beijing. Check back twice a day for 'The Buzz' and 'Nightlife.'

The sounds of the action -- a ping, ping, ping whenever the white sphere rocketed off a paddle -- echoed from grandstand to grandstand at the Peking University Gymnasium on Thursday. But don't get it twisted -- this was table tennis, not ping pong.

Ardent fans here will correct you if you call the sport ping pong. Ping pong, they say, is a game you play in the basement or the garage. Something you play with grandpa after he's had a couple too many. A game that's more recreational than sport. Moreover, a ping pong table in the United States is more likely to be used as a platform for beer pong.

Table tennis is as close to a national sport as there is in China -- although basketball is quickly rising in popularity, especially with the youth. For table tennis fans, the setup at the Peking University Gymnasium must have been heaven. Two hundred and twenty matches will be played in 10 days.

Four games were going off simultaneously on Thursday, the third day of singles. The day started promptly at 9 a.m. and would continue until 3 p.m. Twenty four matches in six hours. After a three hour break, the action would continue into the night.

It's akin to the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament for college basketball junkies. Except all the games are played under one roof. One match after another after another after another.

It takes just as much eye coordination as the players' to keep track of the action. At one point two matches were stretched into the seventh set: China's Wang Chen vs. Korea's Kim Kyung Ah and USA's Gao Jun vs. the Dominican Republic's Wu Xue. The crowd would switch from table to table, cheering for long rallies and crushing winners.

But this was China's game and the partisan crowd threw their sizable support to each Chinese competitor (that included players from Hong Kong, as well). "[Insert Chinese athlete's name], jia you!" was chanted between nearly every point. The cheer will be ringing in my ears for years.

Wang rode the crowd's support to a 11-5 win in the seventh set. Gao, however, could have used some more support. The American was upset 11-9 in the final set. All the players were dripping in sweat after the final point. Who says this isn't a high-impact, grueling sport? Not Gao and her opponent after their hour-long match.

"I was just trying to fight," Gao said. "I was very tired, it was such a long match. I just couldn't move anymore."

"I was exhausted," her opponent Wu said. "I didn't even think about winning or losing. I just wanted to get it over and done with."

But the crowd wanted more, the only reason to leave the seats was to get a Styrofoam box of food or a bowl of noodles. It was noon and the men took to the tables. Asking which Chinese players were good, a fan looked perplexed. "All of them," she said.

The energy didn't dissipate in the afternoon -- that obnoxious cheer again -- although one of the volunteers nodded off as she sat beside the press box. Even the long two weeks of the Olympics had gotten to her.

But she must have surely woken up when Denmark's Michael Maze and Croatia's Zoran Primorac battled into the 7th set. The fans knew that were witnessing a classic, a match that overshadowed the other three besides them. Maze parried attack after attack, awing the crowd with each defense of Primorac's shots. The final point lasted about 20 shots, until Primorac finally finished off the Dane. The crowd roared in approval and appreciation.

Maze stalked off to a tunnel under the stands. He paced back and forth, his frustration visible as he discussed the match with his coach. He had come so close, losing 11-9 in the final set. Table tennis most likely has been his life for the last four years. And I wouldn't disrespect him by calling his sport ping pong.

Sunny Wu will be writing for msnbc.com throughout the Beijing Olympics. He can be reached at sunny.k.wu@gmail.com. You can follow more of his exploits at http://meiguoren.wordpress.com/.

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