Yes, Table Tennis is an Actual Sport
Written by Andres Salazar
Growing up in Canada, chances are that we all either played a sport or knew someone that was an active athlete. Playing sports is regular, with soccer and hockey being the most common. While we all knew people that were always on the grass field or on the ice rink, athletes representing different sports all over the place. Volleyball, rock climbing, combat sports, and curling are some of the physical activities widely accepted as great pastimes.
However, there is one sport that, here in North America, never became popular, or even taken seriously. While its larger-scale cousin is watched by millions of Canadians, table tennis seems to go completely unnoticed, relegated almost entirely to being a simple game that can be played at a friend’s man cave. Widely known as simply “ping pong”, the miniature version of tennis is seen as just that, while it is actively played and celebrated across Europe, Asia, and parts of South America and Africa. Why is it that it gets completely disregarded in our part of the world? Perhaps, it could be that many people here don’t fully understand what it entails, or what makes it such a fascinating sport. By learning a little about it, perhaps some can realize that, yes, it actually is a valid sport.
One of the most common questions that table tennis enthusiasts will hear when speaking to someone is “Wait, it’s actually a sport?.” Often followed by an even bigger surprise reaction when people find out that table tennis is, in fact, an Olympic sport. Making its debut in the 1988 summer Olympic games in Seoul, South Korea, table tennis has seen athletes from around the globe competing in the singles and doubles categories. This fact might be shocking to hear, especially when realizing that it has been an Olympic event even before commonly watched events, such as badminton and taekwondo, which debuted in 1992 and 2000, respectively (IOC, 2017). Since its introduction in 1988, table tennis has remained a consistent staple of the summer Olympiad. Though these days, the Chinese national team has been dominant throughout the years, many players from South America, Africa, and even Canada play at every major table tennis event.
Another common misunderstanding is that table tennis is not a physically demanding sport. As is the case with most physical activities, athletes at the elite level have to stay at an optimal fitness level to compete. Studies have shown that to stay competitively relevant at the international level; an athlete must possess and maintain strong muscular and cardiorespiratory endurance. Top players focus on training that optimizes explosive movements, to increase their speed and power for their in-game rallies (Kondric et al., 2013). Training camps preparing for world championships include full-body workouts, often focusing on developing the muscles in the legs, to increase mobility during matches (Srinivasan, 2018). Preparation for high-level competitions can be grueling, with schedules that can include about twenty-two hours of weekly training, even for lower-level competitors (Ttdementor, 2017). Training includes everything from standard weightlifting, but will also incorporate hours of technical training, private coaching, and practice matches until it’s time for the day to end. Even though the sport’s playing field is relatively small compared to that of games like tennis and badminton, building the capacity to maneuver around quickly is essential for players to keep up with the ball. There is also immense mental fitness needed. Practice sessions focusing exclusively on strategy are commonplace, putting a large focus on fast-paced problem-solving. Researchers have even found evidence to suggest that the sport’s mental training improves the prevention of degenerative brain illnesses, such as dementia (Yamasaki, 2022). All of this shows that while it looks simple on tv, the highest level of competition requires immense physical and mental dedication.
There is an incredible amount of strategy that goes into table tennis. While at first glance, it may look like a simple game, the reality is that the tactics and equipment and equipment plays an immense role. Specific hand movements when hitting allow for a spin to be applied to the traveling ball, which would then change its trajectory. The opponents then must respond by catching the ball and returning it properly, as the spin would otherwise take the ball elsewhere. This makes the sport look more like a high-speed chess match, as each movement has a precise purpose, and doing the wrong stroke can lead to the opponent getting the point. Adding even more layers to the strategy of the game is the equipment. Each racket is built differently. It can be made of wood, plastic, or carbon fiber, making the racket either heavier or lighter. The rubber on the surface is the most important part. Professional players spend hours choosing the right rubber, as some might be stickier to increase the spin on the ball, soft ones make the shot more accurate, and tense ones tend to increase the ball’s speed (Liu, 2013). The point is simple: professional-level table tennis goes beyond simply hitting the ball with a wooden stick.
The great thing about table tennis is that it can be enjoyed at all levels. A staple of the summer Olympics since the late 80s, elite athletes train for hours every day to optimize their performance. On the other hand, the game can be incredibly engaging for the two friends playing in the basement with a beer in hand, and a racket in the other. What is commonly known as “ping pong” is as legitimate of a sport as badminton, baseball, and soccer. There is an immense amount of strategy and physical preparation that, together, create something that is fun and challenging. The next time you come across a green table with a net going across it, you might remember that, yes, table tennis is an actual sport.
International Olympic Committee. (2017). History of Table Tennis at the Olympic Games. OSC Reference Collection. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/Factsheets-Reference-Documents/Games/OG/History-of-sports/Reference-document-Table-Tennis-History-at-the-OG.pdf.
Kondrič, M., Zagatto, A. M., & Sekulić, D. (2013). The physiological demands of table tennis: a review. Journal of sports science & medicine, 12(3), 362–370. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772576/#:~:text=Scientists%20from%20around%20the%20world,Zagatto%20and%20Gobatto%2C%202012).
Liu, J. Q., Wang, B., Zhao, X., & Dou, Y. (2013). The Application of Rubber Materials on Table Tennis Racket. Applied Mechanics and Materials, 473, 116–120. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.4028/www.scientific.net/amm.473.116.
Srinivasan, R. (2018). Staying up to snuff, the paddler way. SportStar. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://sportstar.thehindu.com/columns/fitnesswise-ramji-srinivasan/staying-up-to-snuff-the-paddler-way/article23343605.ece.
Ttdementor. (2017). Table Tennis training in China. The Medium. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://medium.com/@ttdementor/table-tennis-training-in-china-c960e0a87eed/.
Yamasaki, T. (2022). Benefits of Table Tennis for Brain Health Maintenance and Prevention of Dementia. Encyclopedia, 2(3), 1577–1589. MDPI AG. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/encyclopedia2030107.