Boris Johnson famously announced at the close of the Beijing Olympics that it was the Victorians – not the Chinese – who invented ping pong, and that “wiff-waff” was a parlour game played on grand dining tables. The mayor’s claim, delivered with plenty of snorting side-spin, has since been disputed, but the fact remains that with London 2012 rapidly approaching, the appetite for table tennis – or whatever you want to call it – in the capital is growing apace.
In 2010 arts project Ping! introduced a four-week initiative to put up more than 100 temporary tables – equipped with bats and balls – alongside key landmarks, museums and squares in London.
It was a huge success, and returns this summer.
From June 29 until the end of the Paralympics there will be 130 tables put up across the capital at places such as Leicester Square, Heathrow, Kings Cross, Natural History Museum, Shoreditch Church and Canary Wharf.
This time there will be additional attractions, such as artist-designed tables, dating match-ups, and glow-in-the-dark games.
Sing London, backed by the English Table Tennis Association, is the team behind the scheme and creative director Colette Hiller is delighted by the success. “Since 2010 we have attracted a further 150,000 regular players,” she says, “and it’s easy to see why. It often takes a very small intervention to generate social interaction between strangers, and here is a game that crosses over age barriers, national and cultural divides. And unlike most other sports you can pick it up and improve immediately.
“We’ve found people are very trustworthy and don’t walk off with the bats.”
She adds: “Two years ago, when we started Ping! there were lovely examples of gardeners playing each other in the parks before work, security guards doing likewise, and office workers having a go in their lunch breaks. I expect, with the Olympics about to start, the desire to play will be even greater this time around.”
Adrian Leigh founded Pongathon in October and hosts nights at clubs across London where hundreds of people – on company days out, or on their own – can test their table tennis talents out against strangers, with a beer in hand and a soundtrack of dance music. He has been amazed by the interest, and is looking to expand quickly. “The Games coming has helped, but it’s been a great success,” he says. “We have provided something that is sociable, fun and trendy. But it’s what all the cool kids are doing in Sweden, New York and Berlin – there is a real taste for it in London too. It’s a great ice-breaker.”
Paul Drinkhall, Team GB’s sole representative in the men’s singles, thinks these initiatives are fantastic for the sport. He tells Scout London: “People go to these events, have fun and get involved and it is great that there are different takes on the sport to capture the imagination, be it music or luminous balls. It is little wonder with ideas like Ping! and Pongathon that table tennis is one of the only sports in Britain in which the participation levels are continuing to go up.”
Where to play in London
Highbury Table Tennis Club
Highbury Grove School
This is the place for ping pong and beers.
8 Highbury Grove London
Nearest tube: Highbury & Islington
Young Offenders Institute
93 Feet East
150 Brick Lane, E1 6QL
Nearest tube: Shoreditch High Street
Wilton’s Music Hall
1 Graces Alley, London, E1 8JB
Nearest tube: Aldgate East
The Book Club
100-106 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4RH
Nearest tube: Old Street