When a delegation of United States table tennis players visited China in 1971 in what would go down in history as "Ping-Pong diplomacy," the Communist Chinese government gave the matches the slogan, "Friendship First. Competition Second."
The games were played in a convivial spirit that did much to foster a renewal of relations between the U.S. and China, and they paved the way for a visit by President Richard Nixon a year later.
But when the table tennis world converges upon Beijing for the Summer Olympics, there will be no such allowances, no diplomatic shuffling, no wider agenda and no concession to the high-minded niceties of ancient Athens.
For millions of Chinese, the table tennis events are the most important of these Games. Nothing less than a clean sweep of medals by the home country is expected, if not demanded.
There will be no room for friendship on the court, and, one suspects, little air time for national anthems other than The March of the Volunteers.
While 110-meter hurdler Liu Xiang and basketball star Yao Ming are China's two most famous sportsmen and their exploits are sure to command huge attention, it's the Ping-Pongistes' speed, skill, dazzling hand-eye coordination and trademark aura of serene mastery that best represents the host nation's psyche.
And of the 28 sports on the Olympic schedule, nowhere will homecourt advantage be more evident than in the Peking University Gymnasium, where Chinese pride will really be at stake.
World No. 1 Wang Hao leads a Chinese table tennis team looking to sweep men's singles.
"In a recent Chinese survey about which sport people most associate with the Olympics, table tennis came out on top," said Steve Dainton, director of the Asia Pacific region for the International Table Tennis Federation. "We can expect a huge army of support and an absolutely amazing buzz in the stadium. With the audience so close to the action, China will have a big home advantage.
"You would be hard-pressed to find someone in China who didn't know anything about their table tennis players."
High hopes are pinned on four-time World Cup winner Ma Lin, 2004 silver medalist and current world No. 1 Wang Hao and three-time world singles champion Wang Liqin. South Korea's Ryu Seung Min stunned the Chinese brigade four years ago in Athens by claiming gold, but the favorites will be harder to topple this time around.
The women's singles champion is almost certain to come from one of three Chinese, namely world No. 1 Zhang Yining. China will also be overwhelming favorites in both team competitions.
The backdrop will be an energetic crowd verging on soccer-style fanaticism, with flag waving, chanting and passionate support. The Brits may have given table tennis to the world, starting it on a Victorian drawing room table, but China embraced, refined, defined and ultimately dominated the sport. Now, its 1.3 billion people consider success their right in the game they call "guo qiu," or "national ball."
"Every top player dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal and this year's tournament should have an incredible atmosphere," said Germany's Timo Boll, the world's sixth-ranked player. "It will be harder than ever to beat the Chinese in their own country, but to achieve it would be even more satisfying."
The men's singles final is expected to get the highest television rating in China on the Games' penultimate day despite finals in men's soccer and women's basketball and the last night of track and field. Tickets for the four disciplines sold out months in advance despite being among the most expensive. Now they are going for around 10 times face value on the black market.
Former Olympic gold medalist Deng Yaping followed her glittering playing career with a move into sports politics. Now deputy director of the Olympic Village, she told how the long wait for Beijing to stage the Games has only added intensity to the public fervor for success in table tennis.
"It has been China's dream to stage the Olympics for more than 100 years," Deng said. "For the Chinese public, gold medals mean everything. Everyone wants the players to show the world why they are the best."
- table tennis