The World Championships of Ping Pong (the WCPP for short) will be held this weekend at Alexandra Palace. Sixty-four players from thirty-two nations will descend on London to compete for a £100,000 prize fund in a tournament which will be broadcast live on Sky Sports. This glitzy, high-stakes event will be brought to us by sports promoter Barry Hearn, whose Matchday Sports company has already created mass audiences for snooker and darts. Now Barry wants to do the same for our most cherished sport. But is this still our sport?
So what exactly is ping pong? Is it a new name for table tennis? An old name, perhaps? Or just something else entirely?
We did a spot of digging and spoke to some table tennis coaches along the way. This is what we found out.
If you ask Siri ‘what’s the difference between ping pong and table tennis?’, Siri will chicken out of the challenge and offer to search the internet for you. Online you’ll find a maze of fascinating but largely contradictory stories about Chinese pronunciations, aggressive trademarking by 1900’s game manufacturers and plenty of arguing about the relative seriousness of the two games’ competitors.
There is actually a concrete distinction between the modern games of table tennis and ping pong which is a lot more straight-forward than you might think; but even the more convoluted explanations possess a good deal of truth in them and do shed some interesting light on the two names’ histories and meanings. So we’ll start there.
Pingpang Qiu: the Chineese Table Tennis
Table tennis’ in Mandarin and other Chinese languages is indeed ‘Pingpang Qiu’. When this phrase is spoken aloud by a native speaker the first two syllables sound virtually indistinguishable from ‘ping pong’. ‘Qiu’ apparently means ‘ball’, so it would seem that Chinese table tennis is technically known as ‘tabletennisball’, which intriguingly mirrors the way sports like football, handball, murderball and others have been named in English.
Does this mean then that ping pong is the more organic, authentic name for our treasured and enigmatic sport of table tennis? Could it be that ping pong is only the English corruption of the Chinese name?
Well, no. The game actually only spread to China during the early twentieth century; sometime after products advertised as ‘Ping Pong sets’ were already being sold in London department stores. The Chinese name for the sport actually originated after these sets had been brought out to the British imperial settlements in Asia. The brand name on these sets then seems to have been adapted for the Chinese tongue, and so ‘Pingpang Qiu’ persists even today as the official title of table tennis in modern day China.
“It’s all in the name.”
To say that ping pong was the original name for the game, however, is not quite right. In the late nineteenth century various names for this fledgling sport were actually being used fairly interchangeably by both players and equipment manufacturers in Britain and America; Gossima, Wiff Waff, Flim Flam, Pim Pom and Table Tennis were all bounded about freely before the turn of the century. Ping Pong was just one particularly popular title, supposedly originating in the sound that the old rubber balls would make as they were rallied back and forth across the table.
The twentieth century marked the end of this giddy merry-go-round of silly names as in 1901 the two leading manufacturers of the time, Jacques in Britain and Parker Brothers in the US, joined forces to establish a worldwide trademark on the popular name ‘ping pong’. The smaller manufacturers were then forced to find a separate name, one single and simple title that they would all use to brand their products permanently, so that they could keep pace with Jacques and the Parker Brothers in a rapidly growing market. They decided on a sensible name which seemed to stick: table tennis. The official victory of the table tennis moniker was finally cemented in 1926 with the formation of the International Table Tennis Federation, who still govern the sport today.
However, for all the success of table tennis the cheery alliterative title ‘ping pong’ remains a popular phrase over a hundred years later. A registered trademark on the name still exists and is currently owned by American manufacturers Escalade Sports. Their company still seems rather desperately insistent that only their equipment is truly ‘ping pong’ kit, while the rest of the world continues using the phrase much more generally, often suggesting a more relaxed, amateur approach to the same sport as table tennis.
“Table tennis is ping pong taken seriously.”
The trademark-enforcing insistence of Escalade Sports doesn’t seem to faze Corinne Purtill of the Huffington Post. She reflects a common perception of the game when she states that whenever table tennis is played “in a garage, rec centre or any other setting in which it would be permissible to place a beer can on the table, it’s ping pong.”
Today the context of where, when and how well the game is played often seems to have a considerable effect on which of the two surviving names is used. For Cardiff City Coach Patrick Thomas ‘ping pong’ conjures the image of a youth club and players “who just stand there and flap their arms at the ball.” There seems to be a tangible distinction between ping pong as a game that is played casually between friends in basements and hostels, in contrast to table tennis as an organised sport, contested in the Olympics and organised leagues around the world; where you’d probably get at least some funny looks for shouting about the P-word.
“I used to correct people when they’d say that I played ping pong”, says Patrick Thomas. “It depends how much the sport means to you, I suppose. ‘Ping pong’ I just think is a very patronising, very condescending sounding name. It doesn’t really show how much you put into training or how much effort the sport actually takes.”
The professional stigma around the word is, however, rapidly being eroded by the new World Championship of Ping Pong (WCPP) events. For one thing, this weekend’s prize pot will eclipse almost anything on offer in dedicated table tennis events, and this has no doubt played some part in the steady stream of table tennis professionals happy to declare themselves ping pong players for at least one weekend a year.
But the players competing at Alexandra Palace tomorrow shall have to do more than simply change their job title. They shall have to adapt to new rules and, crucially, new equipment.
The Difference: Tweaks in the Rulebook
For the most part the WCPP organisers have adopted the standard rules of table tennis with only a few exceptions. Games in the competition will now be played as first to 15 points, rather than the ITTF prescribed 11, and any server who has less than twelve points also has the option of deploying a joker, the ‘double-point ball’, once in every match. This special ball is white, rather than the standard ping pong orange, and will earn the server two points so long as they win the next rally.
But when you speak to table tennis players about the WCPP it is not the bonus ball or even the change of the scoring system that they’ll mention first; the first thing is always the bats.
The Difference: Sandpaper Bats vs. High-Friction Rubber
Since at least the 1950s, table tennis bats have been covered in rubber sheets with a thin foam layer underneath. This development changed the game forever and sparked an ever-accelerating race for manufacturers and players to achieve more speed and spin coming off the bat.
Ping pong bats are sandpaper on wood. No foam and no rubber.
The intention here is to deliberately slow the game down. It is said that a return to an older, simpler style of bat can provide a new challenge for players whilst creating a sport which the average spectator will find much easier to watch and understand. Sky Sports ping pong commentator Colin Wilson says that the switch to sandpaper ultimately means longer rallies and “more cat-and-mouse strategy to notice and enjoy. Perceptually, it is easier for spectators to see the skill applied by the players.”
Whilst the coaches at Cardiff City Table Tennis Centre admit that this slowed down version of their sport will benefit casual spectators, they will still be pining for one element vital to the modern game of table tennis all but absent in ping pong: spin. “The spin is what’s exciting for me”, explains Patrick Thomas. “Without spin you can’t get the angles you want. Watching ping pong you won’t get those really tight and exciting rallies over the net.”
Proponents of ping pong, however, often claim that it’s this focus on spin which has previously hampered attempts to bring table tennis to a mass audience. Barry Hearn, the man behind the WCPP, claimed that spin and its role in disguising the bounce and movement of the ball has had the effect of changing table tennis into “a battle of scientist against scientist”, as players strive to rapidly calculate and deploy spin to force their opponents quickly into errors. But quick-thinking unfortunately is mostly invisible, and so doesn’t always make for great telly.
However, whilst Cardiff City Coach Lloyd Gregory acknowledges that ping pong is possibly “better for spectators because you don’t have to understand spin to enjoy it”, he feels that the lack of spin and pace involved means that ping pong loses some of the tactical dynamism that characterises table tennis. “With sandpaper bats it’s very much what happens happens. You know exactly where the ball is going to go. Of course, whether or not you can stop it is still another matter.”
The same as table tennis, but different.
So where does ping pong end and table tennis begin? Leaving aside the historical distinctions and stipulations about participants’ varying attitudes, ping pong in its modern form is simply table tennis played in a slightly different format with very different bats, which considerably alter the style of play. But is it a separate sport? And is the WCPP, the world’s premier exhibition of modern ping pong, a good thing for table tennis?
The coaches at Cardiff City seem decided. Ping pong is a type of table tennis. It is not a word inter-changeable with the sport, but neither is it a separate game altogether. They described it as a “branch” or “sub-category” of table tennis and so welcome the growing profile of ping pong.
“The most important thing is that people associate ping pong with table tennis”, concludes Lloyd Gregory. “People who watch the games may well go down to their local table tennis club thinking that they’re doing the same thing as the guys on TV. Ultimately, anything that sends more people towards table tennis can only be good sport in general.”
Fellow coach Patrick Thomas will definitely be watching the ping pong on Sky Sports over the weekend, though he can’t help but feeling that all that glamour and attention might still be better focused elsewhere. “Sometimes it feels a bit like they’ve given up on making table tennis super popular, so now they’re trying to do it for ping pong instead. I just prefer table tennis because I guess it’s ‘finer’; it’s about finer margins. The more spin, the more you can do really.”
So maybe next year all those TV cameras and massive prize funds can head down to Cardiff for the table tennis instead. We’d really be more than happy to have them.