Olympics: Ping pong cordiale cloaks rivals' enmity

By Marina Hyde

Ryu Seung Min of South Korea competes against Kim Hyok Bong of North Korea. Photo / AP
Ryu Seung Min of South Korea competes against Kim Hyok Bong of North Korea. Photo / AP

Spectators at the ExCel Arena are greeted by a video starring, among others, Lord Coe. "It's a complex, cluttered world we live in," explains his lordship. "But the oasis of sanity is often the Olympic Games."

Is it? Perhaps not yesterday, when North Korea faced South Korea in the men's team table tennis, in a game pretty much hyped as "winner takes peninsula".

As you'll be aware, the Bumper Book of Olympic Cliche dictates that we must classify international sport as war by other means. It's why British sporting commentators always refer to Germany as "the Germans".

It's why ice hockey is often held to have been a significantly more successful cold war weapon than several intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Yet so dementedly aggressive is elite table tennis that the question with the Koreas match seemed not so much whether it was war by other means, but whether the entire war between the two nations - technically still going on after six decades without a peace treaty - had not in fact been table tennis by other means.

Nuclear tests, ship sinkings, incursions into the demilitarised zone - all these seemed faintly tame compared with the extreme wiff-waff, the stony-faced speed drives and the North Korean team's insistence on applauding points they'd won for just a couple of unsettling seconds too long.

Of course, like every parlour game, table tennis always feels marginally more aggressive than bare-knuckle fighting, particularly if played with friends or relatives at Christmas.

But when North Korea and South Korea are thrashing it out between the unforgiving lights of the ExCel, even a family row can look amicable.

A few weeks ago the North Korean state newspaper marked the 62nd anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities between the two nations by calling for "a new war", and unification of the peninsula under creepy princeling Kim Jong Un.

But for London's purposes, the fixture between the neighbours came to assume particular significance after that marvellous diplomatic incident on Day Minus Four of the Games, when the South Korean flag was mistakenly displayed next to the faces of the North Korean women's football team at Hampden Park in Glasgow, causing the ladies of the People's Republic to leave the pitch in protest, delaying kick-off for more than an hour.

Anyway, in the two big results you care about here at the ExCel, London 2012 got the flags the right way round on the electronic scoreboards, while South Korea beat North Korea 3-1 to go through to the quarter-finals, as the form book said they should.

South Korean Ryu Seung Min beat North Korean Kim Hyok Bong in the fourth match to seal the victory.

Table tennis-wise, it was a bit of a blur. From my vantage zone in the demilitarised zone of the press tribune, nobody appeared to be defecting in either direction - in fact, as far as geopolitical incidents went, there was little to trouble the French and South African umpires.

But then, at most Olympic Games, these much-hyped grudge matches pass off without mass casualties or even incident.

The vogue in the latter quarter of the 20th century was for boycotts as opposed to punch-ups or walk-offs, which saw whole Games unattended by nations (North Korea were obvious no-shows at Seoul in 1988). But politically charged sporting ties which descend into actual violence, such as the notorious "blood in the water" 1956 water polo clash between the Soviet Union and Hungary, are the exception.

Ryu Seung Min paired up with Kim Hyok Bong last year in Qatar's Peace and Sport Cup, and despite being at opposite ends of the table yesterday, they managed to avoid taking their paddles to each other. South Korea's big table tennis rivalry is actually with Japan - and everyone's is with China.

Still, for all the ping pong cordiale, it wouldn't do to totally downplay the Olympics' association with overt and covert international strife.

The North Korean military rocket launched in April to mark the birth of Kim Il Sung was blown up mid-air, with suggestions that the humiliation was the work of a virus spawned by the United States cyberwarfare programme. The codename of that programme? Why, "Olympic Games", of course.

- Observer

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