Table Tennis touched down at the Olympics


When Labrinth sat down to pen his electro-dub monster hit Earthquake, it was probably not with the bombastic introduction of international table-tennis officials in mind.

Nevertheless, ping-pong’s blazer-and-clipboard brigade were treated to this tectonic soundtrack as they processed into an arena at the Excel Centre for the Olympic table-tennis competition.

The royalty cheques plopping onto Labrinth’s doormat, would not, sadly, be affixed with stamps bearing one of GB’s whiff-whaff wizkids, who departed the competition with predictable haste.

My father and I had paid £55 each to watch two-and-a-half hours of Olympic table-tennis at Docklands’ gargantuan venue.

When the action finally got underway, we were not exactly treated to an encounter for the ages. Taipei’s fifth seed Chuang Chih-Yuan faced the Romanian Adrian Crisan for a place in the men’s semis.

What the now-expectant crowd wanted was a fiery competitor to get behind, a Lleyton Hewitt of the miniature game, a snarling ping-pong pitbull.

Instead we got Crisan, a ploddingly lugubrious player with more of the air of an injured ruminent. The classier Chuang was only too happy to wield the metaphorical electric cattle-prod as he prevailed in straight sets, or in table tennis terms, about twenty minutes.

By now we were bracing ourselves for a seriously disappointing evening, especially as it became apparent that our two-and-a-half-hour session would yield only one further match.

In its staccato rhythm of thrust-and-counterthrust, table-tennis resembles no other Olympic sport quite so much as fencing. We had seen a one-sided knifing, what we wanted, nay needed, was a proper gladiatorial joust.

The PA announcer cleared his throat. “From Germany, please welcome the world Number 10, Dmitri Ovcharov!” This, immediately, was more promising, for here we had a protagonist with a name so full of Slavic Bond-villain menace that we were half-expecting him to emerge with a swivelly glass eye and a fluffy cat under one arm. We settled for a steely Teutonic glare. 

‘And from Denmark, former Olympic bronze medallist, Michael Maze!” Maze too caught our attention, an unapologetically athletic figure in a game that sometimes feels self-regardingly cerebral, bounding into the arena with McEnroe-esque sweatbands adorning his wrists and forehead. It was not to be the evening’s last taste of Superbrat.

The first set confirmed that we were in for a much tighter contest than the last, and thrillingly the characters of both players began to emerge. Ovcharov was the hotheaded aggressor, acclaiming each fizzing forehand winner with a skip and a yelp, like a scalded coyote.

Maze, more defensive, was a study in Nordic cool, his trendily stubbled features betraying no hint of delight or disappointment. The Carlsberg to Ovcharov’s currywurst; it was a rivalry of delicious contrasts.

There was one further ingredient that set the main course apart from the disappointing starter. Around the arena, in clusters of red and white, Danish and German fans were beginning to make themselves heard, chanting, drumming, yelling and stomping their raucous encouragement, a glorious cacophony of good-natured partisanship.

And in their enthusiasm they carried a good deal of the previously neutral crowd with them, whipping up a football stadium atmosphere of bubbling boisterousness, all focused upon a single nine feet by five table.

It was brilliantly surreal, like watching a stadium rock crowd deliriously acclaim a lone xypholonist.

The first set went to Ovcharov, 11-8, and Maze looked poise to level the tie when he held two set points at 10-8 in the second. The first he squandered with an overcooked backhand; the second was lost in a moment of ineffable drama. Maze served, Ovcharov flopped his return into the net, the Dane celebrated.

But then, from the umpire’s chair, a late and contentious call of let. In that theatrically suspenseful splitsecond, we read in the Dane’s previously inscrutable features the struggle between devil and angel.

With the unstoppable momentum that only a man making a really regrettable decision can possess, he drew back his paddle in a baseball slugger’s arc and fairly clobbered the still bouncing ball in the direction of the umpire.

Yellow card, point penalty, ten all. The next two points predictably went the way of the German too, and with them, surely, the match.

Maze retired to his corner and took his towel, a silent vortex of apoplexy swirling beneath the white terrycloth.

He was now a lone crusader against the injustices of an inimical world. If he had been a hero in an action movie, this would have been the moment where he leapt through the plate-glass window with a machine gun in each hand, Bon Jovi playing in the background, and started firing.

The reality was scarcely less dramatic. Winner after coruscating winner suddenly cracked off the Dane’s racket, now transformed into a weapon of such lethal force that we suddenly understood why they appear on the banned luggage list at airports. He took the third by the barely believable score of 11-1 and, the initiative thus electrifying seized, had the better of the next two tight sets, 11-9 both.

But back came Ovcharov, like all the best movie baddies infuriatingly hard to kill off. The German dug his fingernails into the cliff-face and clinched the sixth set with a swooping windmill forehand.

The Excel, a venue more used to hosting pie-charts and pinstripes, was transformed into a seething cauldron of Olympic passion, simmering with the breathless heat of sport at its high-stakes, high-tempo, high-class best.

The final act: set seven progressed to 8-8. After four years of sacrifice and toil, the victor would effectively be decided by a playground game of best-of-five. We were in the realm of Kipling, one heap of all your winnings risked on one turn of pitch-and-toss. 

This was the Olympics in the raw.

Two fabulously skilled competitors, dripping sweat, dreams on the line, a sport that could count its yearly column inches on the fingers of one hand playing to an enthralled and enthused packed house.

Ovcharov won it 11-9. At the moment of his triumph, I looked at the Danish fans massed in the row behind me.

They were still smiling. It was one of those nights.


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