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What ping-pong taught me about life | Pico Iyer


Every other night in Japan, I step out of my apartment, I climb up a hill for 15 minutes, and then I head into my local health club, where three ping-pong tables
are set up in a studio. And space is limited, so at every table, one pair of players practices forehands, another practices backhands, and every now and then,
the balls collide in midair and everybody says, “Wow!” Then, choosing lots,
we select partners and play doubles. But I honestly couldn’t
tell you who’s won, because we change partners
every five minutes. And everybody is trying really hard to win points, but nobody is keeping track
of who is winning games. And after an hour or so
of furious exertion, I can honestly tell you that not knowing who has won feels like the ultimate victory. In Japan, it’s been said, they’ve created a competitive spirit
without competition. Now, all of you know that geopolitics
is best followed by watching ping-pong. (Laughter) The two strongest powers in the world
were fiercest enemies until, in 1972, an American ping-pong team was allowed to visit Communist China. And as soon as the former adversaries were gathered around
some small green tables, each of them could claim a victory, and the whole world
could breathe more easily. China’s leader, Mao Zedong, wrote a whole manual on ping-pong, and he called the sport
“a spiritual nuclear weapon.” And it’s been said that the only
honorary lifelong member of the US Table Tennis Association is the then-President Richard Nixon, who helped to engineer
this win-win situation through ping-pong diplomacy. But long before that, really, the history of the modern world was best told through
the bouncing white ball. “Ping-pong” sounds
like a cousin of “sing-song,” like something Eastern, but actually, it’s believed
that it was invented by high-class Brits during Victorian times, who started hitting wine corks
over walls of books after dinner. (Laughter) No exaggeration. (Laughter) And by the end of World War I, the sport was dominated by players
from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire: eight out of nine
early world championships were claimed by Hungary. And Eastern Europeans grew so adept at hitting back everything
that was hit at them that they almost brought
the whole sport to a standstill. In one championship match
in Prague in 1936, the first point is said to have lasted
two hours and 12 minutes. The first point! Longer than a “Mad Max” movie. And according to one of the players,
the umpire had to retire with a sore neck before the point was concluded. (Laughter) That player started hitting
the ball back with his left hand and dictating chess moves between shots. (Laughter) Many in the audience
started, of course, filing out, as that single point lasted
maybe 12,000 strokes. And an emergency meeting of
the International Table Tennis Association had to be held then and there, and soon the rules were changed so that no game could last
longer than 20 minutes. (Laughter) Sixteen years later,
Japan entered the picture, when a little-known
watchmaker called Hiroji Satoh showed up at the world championships
in Bombay in 1952. And Satoh was not very big,
he wasn’t highly rated, he was wearing spectacles, but he was armed with a paddle
that was not pimpled, as other paddles were, but covered by a thick spongy rubber foam. And thanks to this silencing
secret weapon, the little-known Satoh won a gold medal. One million people came out
into the streets of Tokyo to greet him upon his return, and really, Japan’s postwar resurgence
was set into motion. What I learned, though,
at my regular games in Japan, is more what could be called
the inner sport of global domination, sometimes known as life. We never play singles in our club, only doubles, and because, as I say,
we change partners every five minutes, if you do happen to lose,
you’re very likely to win six minutes later. We also play best-of-two sets, so often, there’s no loser at all. Ping-pong diplomacy. And I always remember
that as a boy growing up in England, I was taught that the point
of a game was to win. But in Japan, I’m encouraged to believe
that, really, the point of a game is to make as many people as possible
around you feel that they are winners. So you’re not careening up and down
as an individual might, but you’re part of a regular,
steady chorus. The most skillful players in our club deploy their skills to turn
a 9-1 lead for their team into a 9-9 game in which everybody
is intensely involved. And my friend who hits
these high, looping lobs that smaller players flail at and miss — well, he wins a lot of points,
but I think he’s thought of as a loser. In Japan, a game of ping-pong
is really like an act of love. You’re learning how to play with somebody, rather than against her. And I’ll confess, at first, this seemed to me
to take all the fun out of the sport. I couldn’t exult after a tremendous upset
victory against our strongest players, because six minutes later,
with a new partner, I was falling behind again. On the other hand,
I never felt disconsolate. And when I flew away from Japan
and started playing singles again with my English archrival, I noticed that after every defeat,
I was really brokenhearted. But after every victory,
I couldn’t sleep either, because I knew there was
only one way to go, and that was down. Now, if I were trying to do
business in Japan, this would lead to endless frustration. In Japan, unlike elsewhere, if the score is still level
after four hours, a baseball game ends in a tie, and because the league standings
are based on winning percentage, a team with quite a few ties
can finish ahead of a team with more victories. One of the first times an American
was ever brought over to Japan to lead a professional
Japanese baseball team, Bobby Valentine, in 1995, he took this really mediocre squad, he lead them to a stunning
second-place finish, and he was instantly fired. Why? “Well,” said the team spokesman, “because of his emphasis on winning.” (Laughter) Official Japan can feel
quite a lot like that point that was said to last
two hours and 12 minutes, and playing not to lose can take all the imagination,
the daring, the excitement, out of things. At the same time,
playing ping-pong in Japan reminds me why choirs
regularly enjoy more fun than soloists. In a choir, your only job is to play
your small part perfectly, to hit your notes with feeling, and by so doing, to help to create
a beautiful harmony that’s much greater
than the sum of its parts. Yes, every choir does need a conductor, but I think a choir releases you
from a child’s simple sense of either-ors. You come to see that the opposite
of winning isn’t losing — it’s failing to see the larger picture. As my life goes on, I’m really startled to see that no event can properly be assessed
for years after it has unfolded. I once lost everything
I owned in the world, every last thing, in a wildfire. But in time, I came to see
that it was that seeming loss that allowed me to live
on the earth more gently, to write without notes, and actually, to move to Japan and the inner health club
known as the ping-pong table. Conversely, I once stumbled
into the perfect job, and I came to see that seeming happiness can stand in the way of true joy even more than misery does. Playing doubles in Japan
really relieves me of all my anxiety, and at the end of an evening, I notice everybody is filing out
in a more or less equal state of delight. I’m reminded every night that not getting ahead
isn’t the same thing as falling behind any more than not being lively
is the same thing as being dead. And I’ve come to understand why it is that Chinese universities
are said to offer degrees in ping-pong, and why researchers
have found that ping-pong can actually help a little
with mild mental disorders and even autism. But as I watch the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, I’m going to be keenly aware that it won’t be possible
to tell who’s won or who’s lost for a very long time. You remember that point I mentioned that was said to last
for two hours and 12 minutes? Well, one of the players from that game
ended up, six years later, in the concentration camps
of Auschwitz and Dachau. But he walked out alive. Why? Simply because a guard in the gas chamber recognized him from
his ping-pong playing days. Had he been the winner of that epic match? It hardly mattered. As you recall, many people had filed out
before even the first point was concluded. The only thing that saved him was the fact that he took part. The best way to win any game, Japan tells me every other night, is never, never to think about the score. Thank you. (Applause)

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