Volkspark Friedrichshain, Tischtennis. Courtesy of the Bundesarchiv
The GDR gave up on big-time table tennis in the 1960s when the great reformers of their sporting life decided that they were unlikely able to use it as a flagship sport to spread the fine word of revolution around the world. It is unlikely that the decision was made because as a sport it is too bourgeois. The unmistakable klipp-klopp-klipp-klopping of the tables of the parks around Berlin may resonate with the sound of the horses of the ruling classes, but it is here that the grottiest drunk can match the most painfully annoying, independently wealthy hipster over a concrete table with a steel divider in the middle. It is here that the ability to hit a viciously top-spun return into a head wind and still land it on the very remotest edge of the table can be achieved by anyone with practice, and what Daddy does for a living has very little effect on it whatsoever.
It is here where the ability to immediately judge that bastard breeze with a simple glance at the flight from the smoke of a fag, made out of the swept up old butts from discarded cigarettes, is the one true divider.
When a butterfly flaps in the wind of Berlin its reverberations can be felt around the world. Or something. Table tennis, is indeed, a people’s sport.
But the GDR saw things differently, preferring to concentrate on the hunt for elite medals in athletics, and preferring to put their cash and their dope behind the games where the prestige lay, and the ones that they knew they had a chance in instead of always finishing behind the Chinese.
The GDR Sporting lexicon – to the lazy sportswriter what Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance was to the hippy or Wir kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo is to the skinny-jeaned and stupid sunglasses sporting Berliner – only lists two table tennis players of any note in its exhaustive pages crammed with rowers and runners and throwers and, er, gunners. There is Heinz Schneider who ended up as an Oberinspektor for the Post Office (where it is not recorded if his junior colleagues ever asked him about his 17 GDR titles, or his explosion onto the tables as an 18-year-old for which he was accorded a hero’s welcome off the train back home in Mühlhausen), and Gabrielle Geisha who came a fantastic 2nd in the 1969 World Championships.
It seems strange that the game wasn’t embraced by the socialist regime that controlled the majority of Berlin. After all, alongside China, where all but only two of the women’s World Champions since 1971 have come from, the game was embraced in Cuba by fellow travellers with bats in their hands and cigars yellowing up their their bearded chops. Indeed, it is claimed Roger Bennett in his book How Ping Pong Changed the World that Fidel was inspired to lead the revolution having watched the unfancied Hiroj Satoh win the World’s in 1952.
But it is Prenzlauer Berg, once the beating heart of working class East Berlin, that that klipp-klopping can be heard again in earnest as Eastside Berlin TTC start the season as the favourites to win the Women’s table tennis Bundesliga for the first time since the voluntary relegation of FSV Kroppach. They have signed the naturalised German No. 1 Shan Xiaona and Kristin Silberisen and are looking at building a revolution of their own. On Saturday they comfortably beat Metz TTC in their European Championships group, and started their Bundesliga campaign with a win against TTG Bingen. Finally people are starting to take note of them.
The names don't need to mean much to you, but rest assured that the games are furious and sweat-drenched, eye-wateringly fast and agonisingly drawn out. The technique is as astonishing as the power and metronomic combinations are awe-inspiring. That klipp-klopping is all pervading, it is like Japanese water torture on speed but without the pauses for thought.
So I am happy to watch, nowadays. I gave up on table tennis myself after a hideous evening at Dr. Pongs right there in Prenzlauer Berg, convinced that cheats were undermining the whole structure of the game. Eventually I was dragged off, ranting, by my wife, assuring me that it wasn’t worth the hassle, that it was only a fun game of ping pong in a grotty little bar that would otherwise have little going for it, but I knew better. The game is a metaphor and like all good metaphors it merely proved that there will always be some bastard trying to kick you down. And I swear one of them was wearing his sunglasses indoors, the fucking pretentious cheat.
Thelonious Monk – apparently as handy with a small rounded, padded paddle in his hand as he was tickling the ivories – knew this, as did Fidel.
I will therefore leave it to the women of the Eastside TTC to reclaim my pride, and that of the city that gave up on the game so long ago. I will stroke my beard, chew down on a fat cigar and wait for them to lead the revolution.