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Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Ping pong veterans all experts in positive spin

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These canny table tennis exponents are happy, healthy and not to be messed with.

Yongning Chen from China is 88 years old and playing the game he loves at this week's World Veterens Table Tennis Championships. He says he's been playing daily for 80 years. Photo / Greg Bowker
Yongning Chen from China is 88 years old and playing the game he loves at this week's World Veterens Table Tennis Championships. He says he's been playing daily for 80 years. Photo / Greg Bowker

The flick is just what it sounds like. The wrist snaps upward, as though you're shooing away a fly or a drunk. But if you have a table tennis bat in your hand and you time it just right, you will send a cellulose nitrate ball, 2.7g in weight and 40mm in diameter, across a net so fast that your opponent won't see it coming until it's gone.

Other shots are also aptly named - the chop sends the ball forward while spinning it backwards and you need to be ready for the way it will bounce. There's the loop, the push and the drive.

The server caresses the ball so it barely clears the net, forcing the receiver to return a juicy, high-bouncing ball, just asking to be hammered. The best shots start below the table level, out of sight, and come into view with the advantage of surprise, like an Apache raiding party topping a ridge in a cowboy film.

The whole panoply of shots is on show this week at the biennial World Veteran Table Tennis Championships at The Trusts Arena in Henderson. One of the organisers said he thought it was the largest sporting event by number of countries held here "but you'd better not put that in the paper because someone will write in and say it isn't".

It sure is big. The programme lists 1665 competitors from 57 countries - partners and other hangers-on will have pushed that number well over 2000 - and on Monday, when I dropped in, it seemed like every one of them was there. All 61 tables were in use, but it was oddly quiet. The sound was muted by the non-slip matting donated by major sponsor Stag, which covered the 5600sq m floor.

Some of those 57 countries have farms smaller than that.

The matches are the best of five 11-point games, between players whose nimbleness laughs at the passage of the years. The youngsters are in their 40s and 50s. The older age groups are divided into half-decades. The real veterans, 85 and over, get the tables nearest the door.

This is the event featured in the 2012 documentary film Ping Pong, which followed players in the last champs in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. (The film's heroine, Dorothy De Low, isn't here, alas: she died in January, aged 103). It's a rest day today, but they'll be hard at it from 9am tomorrow. Finals are on Saturday and the cost of entry is a gold coin.

They call it table tennis, by the way. The onomatopoeic "ping pong" is said to derive from the sound generated by the game's pioneers, British army officers in India and Africa who hit champagne corks with cigar-box lids, as you do.

It makes a good movie title but table tennis is what they're playing here - and they're dead serious about it.

Well, sort of. "I suppose 10 or 20 per cent of them are," says Geoff Rau, who's on the organising committee. "For a lot of them, it's going to New Zealand and playing a bit of table tennis. But they're trying their guts out. They don't like losing."

That much is plain in any match you care to watch. Players have to focus pretty intensely when spectators are wandering past within a few metres. Some matches end in high-fives, some in solemn bows, but perfunctory, even grim-faced handshakes are far from rare.

Oddly, perhaps, the turnout does not follow the popular wisdom that the Chinese own table tennis the way the Americans own basketball. The Chinese delegation is only 126-strong; the Japanese have sent 365, the Germans 203.

There is no dedicated organisational infrastructure for the game at veterans level in China, one of them explains, and thus none of the networking that creates the large tour groups other countries have assembled.

But No244, Yongning Chen, from Chengdu in China, has to be in contention for the long-career award: fresh from beating German Erwin Schultz, he peers out from under his flipped-up clip-on sunglasses and tells me he's 88, and has been playing daily for 80 years.

"First, it makes me happy," he says, "Second, it makes me health." He throws back his shoulders and pumps out his chest for emphasis here, and I reflect that he could pass for a man in his late 60s.

As he turns back to the table and his next opponent, I swear I can see a swagger in his step.

- NZ Herald

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