on one of my thrice-weekly visits to the library, while milling around the film area, (one of my favorite things to do), i turned, and what should pop out, but the spine of a film sitting quietly on a shelf of random dvd’s, calling out to me with a movie title i simply could not resist – “Ping-Pong!’
my friend’s reaction was, ‘really? you’re kidding, right?’ au contraire, mon ami! i could not believe my good luck! i had absolutely no idea what this would be, but knew i had hit the jackpot and had to check it out and watch it right away, before anyone else discovered this gem, lest i be relegated to the wait list, anxiously awaiting my chance to see it. (turns out i was the only one who was quite this excited about it, so no real worries there)
weighing in at an easy 70 minutes long, ’ping pong’ is a 2012 british documentary, about the greatest event in the sport officially known as ‘table tennis.’ in this film, the director and crew follow eight players from 5 countries, (with 703 years between them), as they prepare and compete in the ‘over 80s world championships of table tennis’, in outer mongolia.
these athletes and their stories are extraordinary, each one over 80, each a happy eccentric, survivors of various life events, a tenacious bunch, who refuse to give up on life, and each with their own motivation for this visit to china, the birthplace of table tennis.
a brief snapshot of them:
les (89) – a living legend, was a sickly child who survived to become a weight lifter who still lifts, a former raf flyer, and the 7-time world champion. wears short shorts, and loves watching hours of old film of table tennis matches.
terry (81) – the reigning world champion, survived a collapsed lung, heart problems, prostate, bone, and kidney cancers. he has just found out that his cancer has returned and has been given one week to live. says, ‘it’s mind over body.’
dorothy (100), the oldest competitor ever, still drives, a mega celebrity in her own right, has been to the world championships 11 times, and has been given advice for this trip by her doctor ‘not to have unprotected sex and no iv drug use’. sent off by her whole australian town. says, ‘i feel like a pop star and i will give it everything i’ve got.’
rune (85), has 27 medals, and is a 3-time silver medalist. she is training by running every day and says, ‘i must go, this is my last chance to get the gold.’
sun (80), the inner mogolian current champion, once retired, he didn’t want to sit home all day, so he took up the sport. indulges in a combination of old ginseng roots, herbs, vitamins, rice wine, beer, and cigarettes to keep himself feeling alive, and smiles a lot. says,‘i’ve been looking forward to this competition for years’
lisa (85), a newcomer at the sport, survived wwII as an austrian in the french underground, married to a pistol champion many years her junior, has a medal room with 30 silver and 120 gold medals, and is determined to become the world champion. says, ‘my style is as irregular as my driving’, ’it’s not how hard you hit it, it’s where you put it,’ and ‘if i die at the table, it’s what i want.’
inge (89), used table tennis to train her way out of the dementia ward she committed herself to, survived a series of small strokes after becoming a widow, doing it to ‘retrain her brain,’ could not even pick up a ball at first, says,’now i can forget my sickness.’
ursula (89), the reigning women’s champion, going there to defend her title, has heart problems and can only walk 14 steps at a time, she has a press agent and reads her own headlines and clippings, says,‘young people are shitting themselves, i beat everyone.’
as they all assemble and finally arrive in china, their british guide gives them a bit of practical advice that will cover most any situation,’if people bother you, just tell them to ‘bugger off’ and i’ll try to find the chinese word for that.’
this is the real thing. they are at the 15th world table tennis championships. with 51 countries represented, in 5 stadiums, and over 2,000 competitors, they are here in mongolia, in spirit, in body, and in mind. there is an opening ceremony, and flags, and families, and coaches, and judges, and autographs, and fans, and followers, and bruises, and inhalers, and muscle pulls.
they work their way through the preliminary rounds, the eliminations, the knockouts, the semis, and at last, the match points of the finals. there is sabotage, (stolen ‘bats’), drama, medical issues, and even trash-talking, (‘I don’t care how good she is, she can’t move!’, ‘ your mother gave you the wrong milk, that’s why you are fat!’, and, ‘i can get this old girl!.’)
they each give it their all with various levels of success. win or lose, what they have in common, is their sense of fair play and a shared philosophy about it all -‘i’ve played for many years, so i’ve learned how to win and how to lose. tomorrow is another day.’ – ‘losing is an honor. i’m glad i came. i learned from them all.’
6 months later: you’ll have to watch to see what’s happened. someone says, ‘i will play again, if i am still alive.’
this incredible movie, about a group of extraordinary people, who consider themselves ordinary, shows the unbreakable strength of the human spirit and the power of living a life true to oneself.
Live passionately, even if it kills you, because something is going to kill you anyway. – Webb Chiles
image credit: banyak films