ATHENS, Greece – Looking for a truly big-time event here at the Olympics? One that draws outrageous television numbers, generates high drama and inspires palpable passion?
Forget women's gymnastics and swimming. Table tennis is where it's at.
Table tennis arguably is the most popular sport in the world's most populous nation, China, and is beloved just about everywhere else in the Far East.
Which is why, in a global sense, it doesn't get much bigger than the men's final between China's Wang Hao and Korea's Ryu Seung-min played in prime time in Asia. Estimates had the worldwide TV audience approaching a billion. About five of those TVs were on in the United States.
I can't come up with a good reason why we neither care about nor are any good at table tennis. No American made it past the second round.
We just won the gold in men's gymnastics, and I don't know a single guy who's ever been anywhere near a pommel horse. Probably 98 percent of Americans have, at one point or another, played pingpong.
Yet we haven't produced a player since Forrest Gump got shot in the buttocks in Vietnam.
The simple answer is that we Americans don't like watching sissy sports. We prefer hard-nosed, action-packed telegenic action such as poker, bass fishing and "I, Max."
But much of the world is nuts over table tennis, and after experiencing the drama of Monday's gold medal match, even with all the silliness, I can see why.
Wang of China was the crafty shot-maker trying to uphold one of the greatest dynasties in sports. China had won the gold medal in every category of Olympic table tennis competition since its debut in 1992.
His opponent, Ryu, was an upstart. A flamboyant, big-hitting Korean, Ryu had promised his girlfriend he would propose marriage in the unlikely event he won the gold, causing bookmakers (yes, you can bet on this) to wonder if he might throw the match.
A near-sellout crowd of about 3,500 turned out Monday at Galatsi Olympic Hall. What they saw these guys do with the ball is almost indescribable.
Wang plays this crazy style where he holds the paddle like a pen but hits everything backhanded, putting such outrageous sidespin on the ball that Ryu often missed it completely. Once he even fell down after lunging for a shot.
Ever see that happen in the garage?
This is one wild sport. The players sweat buckets, celebrate each point with pumped fists, screams of delight and little victory laps. They make Terrell Owens look subdued. At times you wonder if it is real or just a Christopher Guest movie.
Eventually Ryu's wicked smash shots neutralized Wang's spin game. But it was close. It was rare for either player to get more than a two-point lead. Ryu won 11-3, 9-11, 11-9, 11-9, 11-13, 11-9.
When it was over, he leapt into his coach's arms (yes, they have coaches), sprinted around the stadium and got a Korean flag to wave to his delighted fans.
Wang, meanwhile, hung his head in humiliation. China took the other three golds here – women's singles and men's and women's doubles. But the Chinese media were apoplectic nonetheless.
In the press conference after Monday's match Wang had his game plan ripped to shreds and was charged with wilting under stress.
"I was under enormous pressure," Wang admitted, still hanging his head.
Even bronze medalist Wang Ligin, also of China, got grilled.
"You failed to win gold or silver again. What do you think your problem is?" he was asked bluntly.
And American athletes complain about our media?
Meanwhile, Ryu looked stunned at his good fortune. He refused to trash talk the Chinese. He noted he was partially lucky. He praised Korea and his fans. But mainly he just smiled.
This guy is 22, and by besting two Chinese and delivering gold to his homeland just went from fairly well-known to national treasure. He is about to experience untold riches and, if he so chooses, all the trappings of celebrity.
But what about his promise to propose to his girlfriend if he wins?
"It is true, I have a girlfriend," he said. "I can't say any concrete future plans because we are both very young."