Sport: The Next Big Ping

Living North Issue 125

As a relatively cheap, easy and inclusive sport, ping pong has experienced a boom in popularity throughout the world and is now hitting our region through casual clubs and sociable ping pong-in-a-pub nights, with Newcastle even hosting an international ping pong festival next month. Olivia Swash finds out what lies behind the rise in popularity of this unlikely hobby...

From its origins as ‘Whiff-Whaff’, an after-dinner event using champagne corks with books as paddles, the game was all the rage around dining tables amongst the elite English upper classes in the 1800s. This Boris Johnson-esque moniker was later patented by Slazenger before gaining the increasingly popular title of Ping Pong as well as the slightly more straight-laced, modern name of Table Tennis. The English Ping Pong Association outline the key difference regarding the onomatopoeic title: ‘Like table tennis but more fun’, so their motto goes. The fashionable game caught on in Europe and spread across the world over the next two centuries, leading to a standardisation of rules in 1929, the same year that Wimbledon icon Fred Perry won the fourth table tennis World Championships in Budapest. Today the sport is divided, the more serious players exclusively refer to their sport as table tennis, while some take offence at the arguably trivial title of its more sociable cousin, ping pong.

The Mayor of London’s handover speech at the Beijing Olympics back in 2008 optimistically stated that as the sport was ‘invented by the British’, at the London Games, therefore, ‘ping-pong is coming home!’ However, since the first inclusion of table tennis in the Olympics schedule at Seoul in 1988, China have nearly swept the medal tables clean, winning 24 of the 28 gold medals on offer, including, unsurprisingly, all of 2012’s golds. With an estimated 300 million players, ping pong is the biggest amateur recreational sport in China today. But increasing opportunities and schemes closer to home are vastly boosting the popularity of social table tennis in the UK, and the ‘Ping!’ scheme was awarded £250,000 of National Lottery funding to install tables in parks, estates, cafes and museums as well as many more indoor and outdoor public places. As a result, the sport is becoming increasingly more popular on social and competitive levels in UK sports clubs as well as pubs.

But what is it about ping pong which makes it so much more accessible than say ‘normal’ tennis? Well, for a start, as a fairly sedentary sport with little chance of injury, there are no barriers to entry. Anyone with any skill level can pick up a bat and play all year round. The game transcends age, gender, social and ethnic differences and can be as physical, relaxing, or competitive as the player wants it to be. The sport has long been a favourite PR strategy for politicians to roll up their sleeves, grab a bat and don a ‘look at how integrated I am’ glistening brow. With many social and physical benefits, the sport is enjoyed by perhaps the widest range of people than any other with a thriving scene for veterans, documented by an inspiring film brought out earlier this year aptly named ‘Ping Pong’, starring eight champions with over 703 years between them all, competing in the World Over 80s Table Tennis Championships in Inner Mongolia.

‘You can start playing quickly and enjoy it quickly,’ says Alan Hedley, chairman of the Premier ETTA (English Table Tennis Association) approved Cramlington Table Tennis Club, which houses up to 22 tables in two sports halls in the town’s popular sports centre. ‘You do have to have some sort of coordination, but after a few sessions you can easily get going.’ The club has players of all abilities from eight to eighty practicing throughout the week, with a beginners’ night running every Friday evening. Although the more ambitious as well as informal social players gain a lot from ping pong, ‘it does bring out a competitive element,’ laughs Alan.

Our region boasts a world-class table tennis alumnus: three-time English Champion Paul Drinkhall. Originally from Loftus, the London 2012 Olympian trained in Middlesbrough and narrowly missed out on a medal after being defeated in the third round singles by world no.12 Dimitrij Ovtcharov from Germany. The Active People Survey found that over 5,000 North Easterners already play the sport regularly, and with over 50 table tennis clubs in the area alone, the choice is remarkably wide.

Despite the North East being amongst the least physically active regions in the country, a ping pong revolution is simmering under the surface of its social sports scene. Following fashionable ping pong-influenced bars and club nights around the world such as Dr. Pong in Berlin, New York’s SPiN and The Book Club in East London, Newcastle is bringing the sport to a more lighthearted, accessible level. The Cumberland Arms in Ouseburn Valley hosts one of the longest running ping pong-in-a-bar nights in the UK. With a ‘no talent required’ policy, the evening is perfect for rookies to drop in to meet new people and practice their backhand in the upstairs room of the homely pub.

Organiser Toby Lowe was inspired to bring the sport to Newcastle six years ago after a holiday in Berlin, where he experienced the atmosphere of a ping pong night in the unlikely setting of a stylish bar. ‘It was the most fun I’d had in years! I had to bring it back to Newcastle,’ he says. At a mere £3 entry including bat hire and live music accompaniment, the night has gained a loyal following from a wide range of people in the area. ‘We get everyone from students to people in their 60s and everything in between,’ says Toby. ‘At least three long-term relationships have come out of the nights, including one marriage and a ping pong baby!’ As the nights are less about serious sport and more about a sociable few games over a drink, ping pongers use a ‘round the table’ approach, meaning everyone can get involved. Each player takes their turn for a shot and then moves, quite literally, around the table for a fun and fast-paced alternative to the less inclusive singles or doubles.

‘I had to stop telling people about it as we couldn’t fit everyone in the room,’ Toby says. ‘It’s always good fun. Everyone’s doing something daft together!’ With help from some friends, Toby was at the forefront of organising the first ever International Ping Pong Festival and Congress, aptly named ‘Pongress’, in Berlin. The second event will be held in Newcastle at the end of October, bringing like-minded bars, clubs and teams together from around the world to play in venues throughout the city.

The rules are simple, with singles games being played up to a pre-established number of points, when someone will come out as the winner. Typically the shorter game length of 11 points is played, as opposed to the longer format of 21. Each point starts with a serve, which can either involve the ball first being dropped onto the table or thrown up in the air (by six inches, if you’re more of a meticulous player) and must hit the table on both sides of the net. Every consecutive shot must get over the net and hit the opposite side of the table, but if the opponent fails to get the ball back over to the other side of the net, a point is won. If the ball is hit before it bounces, the opposing player gains a point. More serious players and those playing competition table tennis have more complex rules which tend to be ignored during casual and social matches. Games of two pairs of players, or doubles, are played with similar rules, but players must take alternate shots. As a result, doubles games are often preferred by casual players for their more relaxed and sociable aspects.

Whether you’re holding a bat in one hand and a pint in the other, or taking things rather more seriously, however you choose to play ping pong it is cheap, easy and accessible to all, as well as being a fantastic way to meet new people. With so many clubs around the region open to novices, there’s no reason not to give it a go.

Alnwick Table Tennis Club - Mondays 7pm - 9pm
Territorial Army Drill Hall, Lisburn Terrace, Alnwick

Byker Table Tennis Club - Thursdays 6pm - 8pm
Byker Community Centre, Byker, Newcastle

Cramlington Table Tennis Club - Fridays 7pm - 9:30pm
Cramlington Community Centre

Old England TTC - Mondays 7pm
Old England Tavern, Great Lumley, Chester-Le-Street

Ormesby Table Tennis Club - Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 7:30pm - 9:30pm. Disability sessions Wednesdays and Fridays 10am - 12pm. 50+ coaching sessions Mondays and Thursdays 10am -12pm
Cargo Fleet Lane, Middlesbrough

Humshaugh Table Tennis Club - Thursdays 6:30pm - 10pm
Humshaugh Village Hall, Humshaugh, Northumberland

Ping Pong Newcastle - Third Saturday of the month 7:30pm - late
Cumberland Arms, Ouseburn Valley