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← Ping-pong and the riddle of victory

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Showing Revision 8 created 08/23/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. Every other night in Japan,
  2. I step out of my apartment,
  3. I climb up a hill for 15 minutes,
  4. and then I head into my local health club,
  5. where three ping-pong tables
    are set up in a studio.
  6. And space is limited,
  7. so at every table,
  8. one pair of players practices forehands,
  9. another practices backhands,
  10. and every now and then,
    the balls collide in midair
  11. and everybody says, "Wow!"
  12. Then, choosing lots,
    we select partners and play doubles.
  13. But I honestly couldn't
    tell you who's won,
  14. because we change partners
    every five minutes.
  15. And everybody is trying really hard
  16. to win points,
  17. but nobody is keeping track
    of who is winning games.
  18. And after an hour or so
    of furious exertion,
  19. I can honestly tell you
  20. that not knowing who has won
  21. feels like the ultimate victory.
  22. In Japan, it's been said,

  23. they've created a competitive spirit
    without competition.
  24. Now, all of you know that geopolitics
    is best followed by watching ping-pong.

  25. (Laughter)

  26. The two strongest powers in the world
    were fiercest enemies

  27. until, in 1972, an American ping-pong team
  28. was allowed to visit Communist China.
  29. And as soon as the former adversaries
  30. were gathered around
    some small green tables,
  31. each of them could claim a victory,
  32. and the whole world
    could breathe more easily.
  33. China's leader, Mao Zedong,
  34. wrote a whole manual on ping-pong,
  35. and he called the sport
    "a spiritual nuclear weapon."
  36. And it's been said that the only
    honorary lifelong member
  37. of the US Table Tennis Association
  38. is the then-President Richard Nixon,
  39. who helped to engineer
    this win-win situation
  40. through ping-pong diplomacy.
  41. But long before that,
  42. really, the history of the modern world
  43. was best told through
    the bouncing white ball.
  44. "Ping-pong" sounds
    like a cousin of "sing-song,"

  45. like something Eastern,
  46. but actually, it's believed
    that it was invented by high-class Brits
  47. during Victorian times,
  48. who started hitting wine corks
    over walls of books after dinner.
  49. (Laughter)

  50. No exaggeration.

  51. (Laughter)

  52. And by the end of World War I,

  53. the sport was dominated by players
    from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire:
  54. eight out of nine
    early world championships
  55. were claimed by Hungary.
  56. And Eastern Europeans grew so adept
  57. at hitting back everything
    that was hit at them
  58. that they almost brought
    the whole sport to a standstill.
  59. In one championship match
    in Prague in 1936,
  60. the first point is said to have lasted
    two hours and 12 minutes.
  61. The first point!
  62. Longer than a "Mad Max" movie.
  63. And according to one of the players,
    the umpire had to retire with a sore neck
  64. before the point was concluded.
  65. (Laughter)

  66. That player started hitting
    the ball back with his left hand

  67. and dictating chess moves between shots.
  68. (Laughter)

  69. Many in the audience
    started, of course, filing out,

  70. as that single point lasted
    maybe 12,000 strokes.
  71. And an emergency meeting of
    the International Table Tennis Association
  72. had to be held then and there,
  73. and soon the rules were changed
  74. so that no game could last
    longer than 20 minutes.
  75. (Laughter)

  76. Sixteen years later,
    Japan entered the picture,

  77. when a little-known
    watchmaker called Hiroji Satoh
  78. showed up at the world championships
    in Bombay in 1952.
  79. And Satoh was not very big,
    he wasn't highly rated,
  80. he was wearing spectacles,
  81. but he was armed with a paddle
    that was not pimpled,
  82. as other paddles were,
  83. but covered by a thick spongy rubber foam.
  84. And thanks to this silencing
    secret weapon,
  85. the little-known Satoh won a gold medal.
  86. One million people came out
    into the streets of Tokyo
  87. to greet him upon his return,
  88. and really, Japan's postwar resurgence
    was set into motion.
  89. What I learned, though,
    at my regular games in Japan,

  90. is more what could be called
    the inner sport of global domination,
  91. sometimes known as life.
  92. We never play singles in our club,
  93. only doubles,
  94. and because, as I say,
    we change partners every five minutes,
  95. if you do happen to lose,
    you're very likely to win
  96. six minutes later.
  97. We also play best-of-two sets,
  98. so often, there's no loser at all.
  99. Ping-pong diplomacy.
  100. And I always remember
    that as a boy growing up in England,

  101. I was taught that the point
    of a game was to win.
  102. But in Japan, I'm encouraged to believe
    that, really, the point of a game
  103. is to make as many people as possible
    around you feel that they are winners.
  104. So you're not careening up and down
    as an individual might,
  105. but you're part of a regular,
    steady chorus.
  106. The most skillful players in our club
  107. deploy their skills to turn
    a 9-1 lead for their team
  108. into a 9-9 game in which everybody
    is intensely involved.
  109. And my friend who hits
    these high, looping lobs
  110. that smaller players flail at and miss --
  111. well, he wins a lot of points,
    but I think he's thought of as a loser.
  112. In Japan, a game of ping-pong
    is really like an act of love.
  113. You're learning how to play with somebody,
  114. rather than against her.
  115. And I'll confess,

  116. at first, this seemed to me
    to take all the fun out of the sport.
  117. I couldn't exult after a tremendous upset
    victory against our strongest players,
  118. because six minutes later,
    with a new partner,
  119. I was falling behind again.
  120. On the other hand,
    I never felt disconsolate.
  121. And when I flew away from Japan
    and started playing singles again
  122. with my English archrival,
  123. I noticed that after every defeat,
    I was really brokenhearted.
  124. But after every victory,
    I couldn't sleep either,
  125. because I knew there was
    only one way to go,
  126. and that was down.
  127. Now, if I were trying to do
    business in Japan,

  128. this would lead to endless frustration.
  129. In Japan, unlike elsewhere,
  130. if the score is still level
    after four hours,
  131. a baseball game ends in a tie,
  132. and because the league standings
    are based on winning percentage,
  133. a team with quite a few ties
    can finish ahead
  134. of a team with more victories.
  135. One of the first times an American
    was ever brought over to Japan

  136. to lead a professional
    Japanese baseball team,
  137. Bobby Valentine, in 1995,
  138. he took this really mediocre squad,
  139. he lead them to a stunning
    second-place finish,
  140. and he was instantly fired.
  141. Why?
  142. "Well," said the team spokesman,
  143. "because of his emphasis on winning."
  144. (Laughter)

  145. Official Japan can feel
    quite a lot like that point

  146. that was said to last
    two hours and 12 minutes,
  147. and playing not to lose
  148. can take all the imagination,
    the daring, the excitement, out of things.
  149. At the same time,
    playing ping-pong in Japan

  150. reminds me why choirs
    regularly enjoy more fun
  151. than soloists.
  152. In a choir, your only job is to play
    your small part perfectly,
  153. to hit your notes with feeling,
  154. and by so doing, to help to create
    a beautiful harmony
  155. that's much greater
    than the sum of its parts.
  156. Yes, every choir does need a conductor,
  157. but I think a choir releases you
    from a child's simple sense of either-ors.
  158. You come to see that the opposite
    of winning isn't losing --
  159. it's failing to see the larger picture.
  160. As my life goes on,

  161. I'm really startled to see that no event
  162. can properly be assessed
    for years after it has unfolded.
  163. I once lost everything
    I owned in the world,
  164. every last thing, in a wildfire.
  165. But in time, I came to see
    that it was that seeming loss
  166. that allowed me to live
    on the earth more gently,
  167. to write without notes,
  168. and actually, to move to Japan
  169. and the inner health club
    known as the ping-pong table.
  170. Conversely, I once stumbled
    into the perfect job,
  171. and I came to see that seeming happiness
  172. can stand in the way of true joy
  173. even more than misery does.
  174. Playing doubles in Japan
    really relieves me of all my anxiety,

  175. and at the end of an evening,
  176. I notice everybody is filing out
    in a more or less equal state of delight.
  177. I'm reminded every night
  178. that not getting ahead
    isn't the same thing as falling behind
  179. any more than not being lively
    is the same thing as being dead.
  180. And I've come to understand why it is
  181. that Chinese universities
    are said to offer degrees in ping-pong,
  182. and why researchers
    have found that ping-pong
  183. can actually help a little
    with mild mental disorders
  184. and even autism.
  185. But as I watch the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,
  186. I'm going to be keenly aware
  187. that it won't be possible
    to tell who's won or who's lost
  188. for a very long time.
  189. You remember that point I mentioned

  190. that was said to last
    for two hours and 12 minutes?
  191. Well, one of the players from that game
    ended up, six years later,
  192. in the concentration camps
    of Auschwitz and Dachau.
  193. But he walked out alive.
  194. Why?
  195. Simply because a guard in the gas chamber
  196. recognized him from
    his ping-pong playing days.
  197. Had he been the winner of that epic match?
  198. It hardly mattered.
  199. As you recall, many people had filed out
    before even the first point was concluded.
  200. The only thing that saved him
  201. was the fact that he took part.
  202. The best way to win any game,

  203. Japan tells me every other night,
  204. is never, never to think about the score.
  205. Thank you.

  206. (Applause)