- 15 Aug 08, 11:55 AM
It's just after 8.30 in the morning in a small park in the Jingshan area, and the mood around the open-air table-tennis tables is relaxed.
Old boys in vests and baggy shorts are puffing on cigarettes as they play, casually smashing balls at each other in a Gumpesque manner while others clean their bats, drink fruit juice and wait their turn in the shade of the leafy trees.
My plan was to chat to the locals about the Chinese obsession with ping-pong.
Within a few minutes, however, it becomes clear that I'm expected to join in with the matches.
Excellent, I think. I've always enjoyed a spot of flim-flam. Back in the day, I even won a school competition, albeit one that not many people entered.
When my first opponent is revealed to be an ancient-looking white-haired man, therefore, I'm a little insulted.
"I'm 84 years old," Ma Yu Chang tells me proudly, scratching his belly.
It's hard not to laugh. I've never played sport against a man half a century older than me before.
Warm confidence in my veins, I send down a sneaky little slicey serve. With a flick of the wrist, Ma drills it back past me while I'm still completing my follow-through.
Must be the pen-style grip he's using, I reflect. Not used to that back home. Better watch out for it.
I try a rapid serve. The ball sizzles instantly back over the net, but it's alright, because I've got it covered - I'll just....
What happened there? How did the ball do that?
A small crowd has gathered. Right Ma, I think. You're 84. I'm going to move you around, play on your obvious weakness.
Have that on your backhand, then that on your forehand, and then - woah!
With no warning, a flashing drive has spat up off the table like a Curtly Ambrose bouncer. So poor are my reactions that the ball actually hits me in the face.
There's a cackle from across the other side of the net. A small crowd of laughing locals has gathered.
With my t-shirt already darkening with sweat, I attempt to buy some time with a little conversation between points.
"When did you get this good?" I pant.
"During the Cultural Revolution," Ma says, sucking on his fag. "There wasn't much else to do."
He tells me his favourite player is Jan-Ove Waldner, the balletic Swedish legend whose improvisation and artistry transformed the game in the 1990s. I nod and look impressed.
He asks who my favourite is. "Desmond Douglas," I say. He looks at me blankly.
I decide a change of approach is called for. Maybe I'm being too anxious, trying to do too much.
I'll go on the defensive, adopt the wall-like tactics that served my sister so well in her occasional and hugely annoying victories over me during school holidays.
It makes no difference whatsoever to the points tally. It just makes me look like a coward.
Ma actually looks bored. After a while, he stops trying to win points and just keeps the ball in play, waiting for me to lose them.
I toy briefly with the idea of asking him to play with a half-size bat, as I do when I play against my nine-year-old niece.
The awful reality sinks in: not only am I being beaten by a man 50 years older than me - I'm not even giving him a game.
At 18-3 down, I switch to all-out aggression. I get lucky with a wild topspin swipe and then hit a sweet backhand drive cross-table for a winner.
Ma yawns, creams three more dipping forehands past my desperate lunges and strolls forward to shake my hand.
21-5. Sorry, Britain.
Over a post-match apple juice, I hear more about the legends and heroes of the Chinese game.
It was Chairman Mao who declared table-tennis the country's national game, shrewdly reasoning that sporting success was the quickest way to rebuild his nation's sense of pride after the humiliating military defeats of the past 100 years.
So obsessed with table-tennis was he that he even put his name to a coaching manual.
It was also a way of legitimising his revolution, of proving to the outside world that the new China was a nation to be reckoned with again.
It worked. When Rong Guotauan was crowned world champion in 1959, it was the first global title China had ever won in any sport. They followed it with the next three too, through the robot-like Zhuang Zedong, and have since won 16 of the 20 ping-pong golds that have been played for at the Olympics.
These days, the expectations are just as high.
Later in afternoon I jumped on a bus over to the Peking University Gym to watch the early rounds of the men's doubles, and found an atmosphere like that in a cock-pit.
There was screaming, stamping of feet and rafter-shaking roars whenever a player from China - or Hong Kong, or Taiwan/Chinese Taipei - got close to winning a point.
It was wonderful to watch, better than anything else I've seen at these Olympics so far.
What it couldn't do, sadly, is rid me of the memory of what happened after a slightly younger mate of Ma's also challenged me to a game before I left the park.
The full details are a little too painful to go into, but if I tell you that he was hitting smashes past me from behind his back and through his legs, you'll probably get the idea.
At one stage it got so bad that I thought he'd given me a trick bat, one that could only hit the ball sideways.
I shan't be going back.
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