Ping Pong For The Proletariat

Table tennis and totalitarian regimes? Not the first random pairing that springs to mind but history has shown them to be odd but entwined-limb bedfellows.

In the comparatively recent (and mainstream media aligned) democracies collectively referred to as ‘the West’, a cheese platter of sports have existed to appease diverse interests — from the Cheddar varieties like football, golf or basketball — to the Extra Old Bitto* strains like Jai Alai (a hybrid of lacrosse and squash) and that cheese-rolling-down-a-hill sport they have in England, lol. In contrast, in the regimes the West has adjudicated as totalitarian, table tennis and its endearing and repetitive simplicity, is prominent to the point of cultural ubiquity.

*Editor’s note: In 1997 a Hong Kong importer purchased one of the oldest pieces of Bitto — and cheese for that matter. Serendipitously, 1997 was also the year that the United Kingdom (the West) transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. What does that mean? FArghk knows. Move along.

Referencing both the world table tennis rankings of the late 20th and early 21st centuries — and the prevalence of table tennis in society, China, Japan, North and South Korea and the USSR-affiliated nations have, well, dominated. Why? Ivor Montagu, that’s why. A scion of a prominent Jewish family in Edwardian England with a dog-to-a-bone obsession for the game.

“A CHEESE PLATTER OF SPORTS HAVE EXISTED TO APPEASE DIVERSE INTERESTS — FROM THE CHEDDAR VARIETIES … TO THE EXTRA OLD BITTO* STRAINS LIKE … THAT CHEESE-ROLLING-DOWN-A-HILL SPORT THEY HAVE IN ENGLAND, LOL.”

For the purpose of a truthful historical account, let us not forget that table tennis originally ingratiated itself to the upper classes as a wine-fueled ‘after dinner’ sport. Nets and blades were often improvised from books, pans and silver cutlery because anything went in Edwardian England.

An ostentatious stage had been set when in saunters the patriarch of our star-crossed story, Montague. No, wait, wrong Montagu(e).

In saunters the renaissance man, filmmaker, critic, screenwriter, zoologist and, most importantly, table tennis champion — Montagu. He was young and rebellious and a real badass because he was a socialist. He was in the thick of Communism when he got to know some of the most avant-garde filmmakers of the Soviet Union. These were the guys that were reimagining film. You know film montages? They were developed by Montagu’s bro Sergei Eisenstein for that scene in Battleship Potemkin. Now infamously known as The Odessa Steps scene — where the baby in a carriage rolling down some steps is intercut with images of Tsarist soldiers marching in lock-step fashion and slaughtering civilians.


Back to table tennis. At this point in history, the sport had about the equivalent following cheese-rolling-down-a-hill has today. Needless to say, but we will say it, sponsorship and membership pennies were tight. Montagu represented Great Britain and won a number of local championships, and then he got all patriarchal and said, ‘Farghk it, I’m going to fund the first world championships’. Not one to rest on his lapel, he then formed the International Table Tennis Federation.

A visionary, Montagu believed table tennis was the ideal sport for the proletarian masses. Bats and balls were cheap and courts took up very little room. He was like, ‘Hey Soviet Union, it’s accessible and universal and it’s perfect for you guys’, and the the Soviet Union was like, ‘I know right! I’ll get our people in touch with your people!’

But if the Soviet Union ‘liked it before it got big’, then China went all Simon Cowell on the sport. In the mid 20th century, China was in pretty rough shape as a result of the Chinese Civil War. The regime desperately needed a way to prove itself and they decided being the boss at table tennis, amongst other things, would do. True to its word, China has dominated table tennis since its first world championships win in 1959.

For Montagu, China realised his vision in a most impressive fashion. But with very few changes in the past 25 years (let alone the 75 before that), an inherent un-watchability of the sport in tournaments, and a continued and predictable dominance from Chinese players, the question remains: Where does table tennis go from here? Please be somewhere new and exciting.