Sports

The Rise of Table Tennis and Ping Pong Diplomacy

The first table tennis tournament took place in London 114 years ago. Today, the sport has some unlikely ties to international politics.

by Jim Weeks
Dec 24 2015, 3:09pm

Image via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Given that you're reading this website, it's safe to assume you know a little bit about sporting history. And not just the back-page stuff: the first transgender player at the US Tennis Open; the story of tragic Welsh boxer Johnny Owen; the time Bobby Moore was arrested for allegedly stealing a diamond.

But here's one that might stump you: do you know where and when the first table tennis tournament was played?

If not you're missing a trick, because that question is bound to come up in the crucial final round next time you take part in a pub quiz. Imagine the looks on your teammates' faces when, with a confident flourish of your pen, you are able to write down 'the Westminster Royal Aquarium, December 1901.' Imagine the congrats, back-slaps, and free drinks.

In 2015 table tennis at an elite level is dominated by Chinese competitors. Since it became an Olympic sport in 1988 China has scooped 24 from a possible 28 gold medals, with every other nation relegated to the role of punching bags who will inevitably fall to the heavyweight Chinese opposition.

It has also enjoyed a resurgence as a pub game. An increasing number bars now feature table tennis (or ping pong, depending on your preference), allowing punters to knock wayward balls about the room with decreasing levels of accuracy, but an escalating sense of skill and enjoyment.

READ MORE: Remembering The Formula 1 Indoor Trophy

Its originators probably didn't see either of those things coming. The sport first found popularity as a parlour game in Victorian England, having purportedly been invented by British military officers in India or South Africa. Of course, the same basic game is likely to have existed across the globe prior to this. But, like football, lawn tennis and many other sports, the British were the first to write down rules and call it their own invention. (Like those sports, they've also had to deal with the rest of the world catching up and then overtaking them).

In the 1880s the game was trademarked by J. Jaques & Son Ltd, who released a set under the name 'Gossima'. The first known advertisement was found in the The Graphic magazine in December 1892. This failed to take off, but more than a century on the name still holds some significance, with Paris' first table tennis drinking establishment named Gossima Ping Pong Bar. "It's all nice and casual," report Time Out, "though the incessant bouncing of balls doesn't make for ideal background music if you're looking to party."

J. Jaques & Son still believed in the table tennis revolution, however, and relaunched the same game with far more success as Ping Pong. The name was trademarked in 1901, leading their rivals to launch variants with different titles. Slazenger, for example, went with Whiff-Whaff.

The Jaques company remains in existence today and still uses its early role in the game's development to sell table tennis sets. Its website says, "the Jaques family invented Ping Pong in 1901, so with over 100 years of Table Tennis Experience we really should know how to make the Best Tables there are." They also have a unique approach to capital letters...

This is the origin of the term ping pong; more than a century later, the choice of name has more to do with how seriously players take the game. According to pingpongengland.co.uk:

"Today the sport is split in two. The serious players exclusively call their sport table tennis, with many taking offence at the title ping pong, concerned that the onomatopoeic frivolity of the latter is detrimental to the image of the sport."

There really is nothing more offensive in all of sport than onomatopoeic frivolity.

This split stretches back more than a century. In 1901, both the Table Tennis Association and Ping Pong Association were formed, just four days apart. This coincided with the earliest organised tournaments. The first – for the table tennis faithful – was played between 11 and 14 December 1901. The venue was the Royal Aquarium and Winter Garden on London's Tothill Street, close to the St. James's Park tube station. There were more than 250 entries, with the ladies' getting underway at 3pm and the men at 7pm.

READ MORE: The British Brothers Who Conquered The Davis Cup, Then And Now

They had trumped their ping pong rivals by just a few weeks: their first tournament took place at Queen's Hall from Boxing Day through December 28.

Over the next few years several more tournaments were played across London, including more at the Royal Aquarium. Events for both disciplines were also held at Crystal Palace.

In 1902 an unofficial world championship was held, but the early interest was fading. The table tennis and ping pong associations merged in 1903, but had dissolved a year later. The sport appeared to have been a flash in the pan.

Interest was revived in the 1920s, however, and in 1921 the Table Tennis Association was founded in England. In 1926 the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was established, and staged a tournament in London the following year.

The ITTF continues to govern the sport globally and has managed to attract some unlikely attention in international politics. In 2003 they recognised Kosovo's table tennis association – five years before the region declared independence – and are cited as the first international organisation to do so. Events such as this have been dubbed 'ping pong diplomacy'.

There's another essential pub quiz answer to keep in mind.