The Only Ping-Pong Scandal You Need To Know About

A draconian punishment handed to World Cup winner Zhang Jike for celebrating is another example of thinking as small-time as the ball.

by Eric Nusbaum
Nov 3 2014, 3:35pm

Photo by James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, a Chinese table tennis player named Zhang Jike beat his rival and teammate Ma Long in a heated seven-set match in the championship round of the World Cup in Dusseldorf, Germany. For the one or two VICE Sports readers who are not closely attuned to the sport, the annual World Cup is probably the third most important ping-pong tournament out there—after the Olympics and the bi-annual World Championships.

Jike's victory was not in itself newsworthy. Jike is an awesome talent, one of the best players in recent table tennis history. He has won the last two World Championships and took gold in the London Olympics ofin 2012. But the aftermath of his victory in Dusseldorf drew more headlines to ping-pong than anything he's done before.

Jike celebrated the win by stomping and kicking through a couple cardboard barriers featuring the names of tournament advertisers, then stripping off his shirt and throwing it into the crowd. It was all PG-rated. Think Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire in Monterey, not GG Allin eating his own feces on stage. But the tournament's jury decided that this was inappropriate behavior for an athlete in a sport as demure as table tennis. They stripped Jike of his entire purse: about $56,000.

The celebration and ensuing absurd punishment made headlines—and not just in China either. The story went as close to viral as a ping-pong story can go. It was the most press table tennis has gotten in recent years. But it's not the kind of press that does any favors for a sport that is constantly looking for more respect, constantly trying to be seen by non-fans as something greater than a basement game. In fact, the entire incident serves as a metaphor for the table tennis establishment's inherent and self-destructive tendency toward small-time thinking.

By withholding Jike's entire purse, the jury demonstrated a skewed and myopic understanding of what sports are supposed to be. Sports are supposed to be exciting and fun. Emotions are supposed to run so high that they occasionally spill over. A fine may have been appropriate, but $56,000 is a lot of money in ping-pong. The outsized punishment was meant to set an example: table tennis is a respectable game and must be treated with dignity, and nothing but the finest behavior will be abided blah blah. It all screams of insecurity and only serves to remind table tennis fans that the sport's ruling class values highfalutin notions of decorum over genuine enthusiasm.

Some key figures in the table tennis world have defended Jike. German national team coach Jorg Rosskopf decried the fine as "quite ridiculous." Ma Long, who was Jike's opponent in the final and is his teammate on the Chinese national team, put the celebration into perspective in a post on his Weibo page: "Zhang Jike's personality is very strong thus such kind of release after the match. I hope everyone will see it properly."

Jike, meanwhile, accepted the fine with a sort of glum formality. He took to his own Weibo page to apologize for not being sufficiently "calm" or "rational" during the celebration. He alluded to pressures he has been facing, and to the intense nature of the match.

But Jike is the kind of player the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) should be celebrating, not condemning. The subtle tensions of a table tennis match can be almost impossible for a spectator, especially a television viewer, to pick up on. When a player like Jike gets hyped up between points or after a match, the emotion is contagious. Viewers who might not understand the precision or subtle technique of a sidespin serve can at least feel the pressure of the match, invest in its rising stakes.

In a phone interview with VICE Sports, ITTF President Thomas Weikert said he thinks there is more room for emotion in table tennis, and that he would welcome it. But he specified positive emotion. "…if you run around after the match, and for example, kiss somebody," he suggested.

Weikert, who took over the ITTF in September, reiterated that he was not responsible for the Jike fine—that it was the tournament jury. He struck a tone of deference on the matter, repeating diplomatically that it was a tough call. But he was not particularly downcast about the incident. One of Weikert's stated goals as ITTF President is to grow the sport's presence in media. And in that regard, the Jike controversy, has actually been a boon.

"In the end, it's positive," he said. Adding a moment later, "People are talking about table tennis."