Ping Pong: The tables have turned

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The Independent Online

Ping pong, a blond politician once wiff-waffled, is coming home. But what no one told Boris Johnson, when he addressed Team GB at the end of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was that the sport that he memorably explained "was invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th century," was already on its way back.

The sport's best players may be Chinese (they hold six of the world's top ten ranking places – for men and women), but Britain re-discovered the parlour game a whole year before British number-one Paul Drinkhall is due to play at London's Excel centre in July.

Thanks to club promoters and plucky entrepreneurs table tennis has already come home. The English Table Tennis Association's website boasts that as many 40,000 people have joined the ranks of the 2.6m who already waft their paddles weekly.

So what's responsible for the growth? Andrew Essa, a former City lawyer, runs London Ping Pong Company. It runs events where employees get free retro headbands and play doubles for fun in front of a DJ or between Karaoke sessions. In less than a year it has put on 75 events for the likes of Microsoft, Accenture, LinkedIn, Google and Bank of America.

What made him invest in ping pong? "For a start it's low-risk, inclusive and fun," he says. "I was in a pub a couple of years ago and there were hundreds of players paying £50 a head to wear fancy dress, drink and play ping pong for charity."

US beer giant Anheuser-Busch's 2009 decision to move away from sponsorship deals with sports such as baseball and drag-racing and stick the Bud Light brand on glossy table tennis tournaments sealed the deal. The brewer also put Budweiser-branded ping pong tables in 4,600 American bars and staged the Bud Light Hard Bat Ping Pong Tournament in association with TV production firms Mark Gordon Co and Fremantle Media (makers of The X Factor and American Idol).

Jordan Wynne, a Mark Gordon executive, said at the time that the push could "take this game out of the basement and garages. It is taking on this cool cultural space of short shorts and retro headbands and it's kind of goofy, but it's got people who take it very seriously."

Other brands seeking to gain an edge are also chucking money at the sport. German sportswear giant Puma is sponsoring Ping! – a collaboration between ETTA and arts organisation Sing London, which last year installed 100 tables in the capital, giving 50,000 people a chance to play.

This year Ping! has expanded to Birmingham and Hull and a pop-up Ping Pong Parlour toured the country in July. Half of its concrete tables will remain in place permanently, with the other half donated to schools, clubs and sports centres, giving 100,000 Britons the chance to enjoy the sport.

With the Olympics due to bring 172 of the world's greatest players to Britain, there's little indication that the new thirst for thwacking the little white ball will die down anytime soon.

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