BEIJING -- Well, you couldn't expect me to come to China and not see any table tennis, could you?
'Twas not so long ago that this sport was government currency. ''Ping-Pong Diplomacy,'' anyone?
A lot of things have happened in this country since those intrepid American ping-pong players broke the diplomatic ice for messrs. Nixon and Kissinger back in the Mao Zedong/Chou En Lai days, but one thing that hasn't been altered very much is China's stature in the world of Table Tennis, which it has dominated for nigh onto 50 years, or ever since Rong Guotan became the first Chinese native to win an official World's Championship in anything by taking the singles title in 1959.
China has now won more than 100 individual or team table tennis titles in the last 49 years, and that includes a combined men's and women's total of 16 gold medals in 20 opportunities since table tennis was introduced as an Olympic sport 20 years ago in Seoul. But the Chinese dominance in international table tennis hardly stops there because China is the unofficial supplier of table tennis talent for countries throughout Europe and North America.
Just ask USA veteran standout Gao Jun how difficult it is to make the Chinese table tennis team.
First, she laughs, thinking of her own experience growing up here. She knows very well what it takes to rise to the top in Chinese table tennis.
''It is really tough,'' she says. ''China has so many good players. China has 31 or 32 provinces. Each province has a team and in each province there are anywhere from 10 to 20 very good players to choose from. So, first of all, you have to get out of the province before you can even think about making the national team.''
Gao Jun, who turned 39 in January, was good enough to be part of a silver medal-winning Chinese doubles team in Barcelona. Yet when she indicated she wished to emigrate to America a year later the basic message she got was the one about not letting the door hit you in the you-know-where.
''The Chinese have so many good players,'': she explains. ''I said I want to leave. They said, 'OK.' I realize what they were saying was, 'There are so many good players behind you, you'd better leave.'''
Thus we have German's Wu Jianou; Poland's Xu Jie and Li Qian; Spain's Shen Yaipei and Zhu Fang; Australia's Lay Jian Fang, Miao Miao and Sang Stephanie Xu, Austria's Chen Weixang; and Canada's Shen Qiang and Zhang Peng, among others.
The USA? Why, it's 8-for-8. All our Olympic table tennis players are either Chinese-born or Chinese descent.
That's just the way it is.
The Chinese domination is a bit more prevalent among women than men. There have been few better players in the last 20 years than the Swede Jan-Ove Waldner, who won World Championships in addition to a gold medal in Barcelona and a silver in Sydney. But the only slight challenge for the women has been from South Korea, which managed to win gold in the now discontinued doubles play in 1988. Of course, those were the Seoul Olympics, and we all know that people tend to rise heroically before the home fans. Chinese women have won in Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, and no one expects it to be any different now.
''The men around the world are getting a little bit closer,'' maintains Gao Jung. ''But in the women's game there is a pretty big gap between Europe and the Asian players.''
The game these top-flight athletes play ain't your basement ping-pong. It is a game of both precision and power, from the tricky little serves to the astonishing smashes they can deliver with accuracy while standing 10, 15 or 20 feet behind the table. There was one such exchange between a Japanese male and a Nigerian yesterday, and as the rally began to take shape the knowledgeable fans began to count the shots being exchanged in Chinese.
The Chinese men have some interesting back stories. Chen Qi almost threw his career away in 2005 when he reacted to a loss in the Asia Cup by throwing a ball and kicking a chair in anger. In America he might have gotten away with a brief lecture and a teeny-weeny fine. Not here. Chen Qi had to apologize on national television; he had to forfeit 10 percent of his annual salary; he had to go to a People's Liberation Army boot camp; and he was assigned to work for a week on a farm for a week in the northern province of Habei.
''I am truly sorry for my action,'' he decided. ''I should never disgrace the Chinese table tennis team. Working in the fields was a good re-education process for me.''
Pacman, you got off easy, buddy.
Teammate Wang Liqin was once made to break up with his girl friend, a female table tennis player, because he was in violation of a rule prohibiting members of the team from any romantic entanglements with a fellow member if you were under the age of 20. But you do what you have to do to remain a member of this team.
The rest of the world accepts the fact of Chinese dominance. Really, now what can anyone do but keep working in the hopes of attaining their level?
Nigeria's Bose Kafo has been living with the status quo during the course of a lengthy career that has brought her to five Olympics. She has competed against the Chinese and the expatriate Chinese all her career, and she harbors no ill will toward anyone. ''It is not strange,'' she explained. ''I myself live in the UK and I represent Nigeria. These people are all part of the development of the sport. I don't resent them because I think about what many of them have gone through. It is not easy to make the Chinese team. I think it just shows that every country wants to win. It is up to the original nations to improve.''
Until they do, the only national anthem organizers will need to bring to most international table tennis competitions is the one belonging to China.