Despite being viewed largely as a casual sport in most of the world, and likely given little thought beyond that, ping pong (or table tennis) has a genuinely interesting history behind it, as you might expect for something that has stuck around in the public consciousness for over 100 years. Here are a few of the more interesting facts I could find about ping pong.
The Origins are Largely Unknown
With most sports, it’s easy to tell who invented them and in what time period. Basketball, for example, was invented by James Naismith, an American physical education instructor in 1891 (bonus fun fact: basketball is the only sport entirely of United States origin!).
It is good to know that the table tennis we know and love was not the same when it started years ago. It had a murky history before it evolved into the modern game we know today.
The prevailing theory seems to be that it was invented during the lawn tennis boom of Victorian England, some time during the 1880’s. They loved the game so much that an enterprising party of socialites wanted to find a way to play the game indoors during the rain.
A bit of wine and some thought later, ping pong was born, played at first with the lids of cigar boxes as paddles, stacks of books for the net, and the cork from the bottle as the ball (setting the trend that many balls would be made from cork at first, then rubber, then cellulose, and now the standard plastic ball that most are familiar with these days).
However, this is just a theory, and has never been definitely proven, nor has a specific inventor ever been nailed down. What is known though is that from those murky origins the game caught on like wildfire…leading to some interesting debate about the name.
So Is it Ping Pong or Table Tennis?
The answer: both! And more, in fact. The game has gone by quite a few names over the years, including whiff whaff, flim flam, and Gossima (by far the worst of the options, in my opinion), but the main two that stuck are ping pong and table tennis.
As mentioned, the origins are a bit murky, so it’s unclear what the people that invented the game originally called it. However, a ton of people (and companies) stepped forward to patent the game, including two major personalities: James Devonshire and John Jacques.
Devonshire claimed the table tennis name in 1885, though let the patent lapse a mere two years afterward. John Jacques on the other hand claimed the name of ping pong in 1901 (which may have been in use already colloquially, due to the sound the ball made when struck, but was in either case better than Gossima, which was his first choice for some reason).
This name was kept when he eventually sold the rights to Parker Brothers, which is where things got dicey for a while. Parker Brothers was very protective of the name, as it was more of a brand than a sport at that point.
Rather than risk being sued, the generic name became table tennis, with Ping Pong remaining a brand name (similar to the dilemma between he brand name Frisbee and the “flying disc” manufactured by competitors) as well as a popular name to all the game by.
Eventually, the issue became largely moot save in manufacturing circles, as people basically use the two names interchangeably these days: though ping pong has a bit of a stigma in the hardcore community, who consider the name derogatory somehow.
No Age Restrictions in Olympic Table Tennis
Most people know that ping pong is an Olympic sport, and one of the more hotly contested ones among international players. However, the most interesting bit of information I’ve found is that there is no age restriction on the game; neither upper nor lower.
A Player can be considered as a senior citizen and still competing in the game. The opposite is true because 15 yr olds are allowed to compete in the Olympic table tennis bracket, making ping pong an anomaly in the sporting world.
Ping Pong Diplomacy
This is a bit of a two for one. Table tennis is ridiculously popular in China; many people know this, though it may not be universally known. Ping pong is even the national sport of China, and has been since the 50’s.
China holds an overwhelming record in tournaments worldwide, with an over 80% win rate in world championships, and even high in the Olympics (hold 28 of 32 Olympic gold medals for ping pong). The love of the game is no higher anywhere in the world.
Which is why it might be no surprise that in 1971, international tensions between the US and China were thawed significantly by, what else, a friendly diplomatic game of ping pong between the US and Chinese national table tennis teams.
This warming of relations led to the historic visit by then-president Richard Nixon a year later, and began a history of amiable (if intermittently still tense) collaboration between the two countries.
This scene with Forrest Gump immortalizes that moment…
The Best Player in the World was Swedish
Despite the overall Chinese dominance of the game, one person not from China stands head and shoulders above the crowd: Jan-Ove Waldner, “The Mozart of Tennis”.
His skill is recognized by players from every nation, and even the best China has to offer, and his popularity is absolutely mind boggling over there.
As far as foreigners go, to the Chinese Waldner (or “Lao Wa”, as they call him) is a Rockstar, to the point that not only was he considered a more recognizable public figure than former president Bill Clinton in the 90’s, he even has his own stamp (the first foreigner to be recognized by a stamp in China).
Despite retiring in 2016, nobody has yet really claimed the vacant throne, leaving the spot of best table tennis player in the world to him.