Check out Slate's complete coverage of the Beijing Games.
Note that the Singapore duo of Wang Yue Gu and Li Jia Wei isn't actually from Singapore—they're both Chinese nationals who were recruited to play abroad. The $500,000 they'll earn for delivering the island nation's first medal since 1960 should ease the pain of losing. Since the Chinese—the ones who haven't been exiled from the mainland, at least—are so much better than everyone else, doubles in particular can take on a metronomic feel. In the men's gold medal doubles match, the German duo of Timo Ball and Christian Suss frustrated the Chinese pair of Wang Liqin and Wang Hao for a while with excellent returns and aggressive shots. But Wang and Wang soon began ruthlessly aiming at the player who had just hit the ball, leaving the Germans with far too much ground to cover.
Zhang and Guo and Wang and Wang are so far ahead of the pack because they've lived nothing but Ping-Pong their entire lives. Imagine the kid down your block who played every day in his basement, then multiply that by 100 billion. As is well known by now, China's centralized sports system identifies players with talent from a young age and sends them away to train. Table-tennis players in particular live Spartan existences that make them robotically good. But the lifestyle they lead leaves little room for enjoying their success.
The expectation of unbroken Chinese success makes the sport's stars unusually dour, even in victory. The only smile I saw crease the Chinese women's faces came after Singapore was dispatched and the gold medal secured. Should anyone stumble, the repercussions will be great. As China Daily, Beijing's English-language newspaper, opined, "With four gold medals on offer in China's de facto national sport, table tennis, any man or woman who fails to live up to expectations on the blue tables will have to endure some degree of private, or public, humiliation." Now go out there and have fun!
The Chinese have left little to chance in their quest for table-tennis glory. Think of the NBA banning Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, and Pau Gasol to ensure the United States a basketball gold, and you get a sense of the paranoia that shapes Chinese table tennis. Indeed, the national team has been in seclusion for a year—no foreigners have even been allowed to play in the Chinese SuperLeague for fear of intelligence-gathering. That ban on foreigners probably didn't upset Germany's Ball—according to the MSNBC commentators, his one year in the SuperLeague was marked by 1,000-mile train rides for matches and coaches who wouldn't let him drink water during games.
Zhang, who speaks her mind far more than the average Chinese athlete, has said that if she had to do it over again she wouldn't have taken up the sport, such is the pressure to succeed. While this nationwide obsession sounds crazy to our nation of beer-pong players, one benefit of covering sports abroad is learning to be open-minded about what other cultures deem important. China got so hard-core about table tennis because the ITTF was one of the first international sporting bodies to recognize Communist China in the early 1950s. So even though my preferred brand of demolition-derby doubles isn't on display, and the Chinese are making a mockery of the competition, there's something remarkable about watching a standing-room-only crowd go nuts for its favorite sport. It would be a lot more fun, though, if I could see just one big smashup ...