Miniature Table Tennis
Also known as Whiff-Waff, Gossima, and Flim Flam over the years, table tennis originated as a form of indoor tennis in the early 1880s when British army officers amused themselves by using cigar box lids to hit rounded wine corks over a row of books lined up across a table. By the 1890s, the paddle and ball game was a popular diversion in England and James Gibb gave it the name ping pong – a reference to the sound of the balls caroming off the table. But it was John Jaques, a British sporting goods manufacturer, who registered Ping Pong as a trademark in 1901 and sold the American rights to Parker Brothers. In turn, Parker Brothers began marketing handy kits that included miniature paddles, a portable net, and a ball. In 1926, the first table tennis world championship was held in London, featuring men’s and women’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles. On the men’s side, Hungary dominated singles play, and earned the first eight of nine titles – interrupted only by Britain’s Fred Perry in 1929. Perry went on to become the first tennis player to win all four tennis majors: the Australian, Wimbledon, French, and U.S. Championships. Asian players began to dominate the sport in the early 1950s, just after the emergence of the foam rubber paddle, which made the game faster and permitted even more spin on the ball. Table tennis made its Olympic debut for men and women at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea and players from Asia swept all four gold medals. Asian countries, particularly China, have continued to dominate Olympic table tennis. Only one non-Asian country has ever won a table tennis gold medal: Sweden’s Jan-Ove Waldner won the men’s singles competition at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
Table tennis has also had major political ramifications in the Far East. At the 1971 World Championships in Japan, Glenn Cowan, a 19-year-old college student on the U.S. team, missed his bus to the competition. Boarding the next bus, he found himself face-to-face with members of the Chinese team, most notably Zhuang Zedong, who had won the world title in 1961, 1963 and 1965. After some awkward silence between the American and his Chinese counterparts — whose nations were on opposite sides of the Cold War — Zhuang eventually approached Cowan and presented him with an embroidered piece of silk as a gesture of goodwill. Then, on April 6, 1971, the American team received an invitation to visit China, and on April 10, the U.S. table tennis team took a groundbreaking trip to the communist nation, making them the first group of Americans allowed into China since the communist takeover in 1949. The American table tennis delegation (consisting of nine players, four officials, two spouses and five journalists) came at the behest of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The trip initiated a gradual thaw in relations and has since come to be known as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.” Three months later, Henry Kissinger (then the assistant secretary of U.S. national security affairs) secretly visited Beijing, where he and Zhou tentatively agreed that their countries should no longer be enemies. President Richard Nixon followed suit with his famous state visit in 1972, shaking hands with Zhou and paving the way for bilateral relations.