George Orwell described competition sport as "war minus the shooting". The definition was disturbingly apt yesterday as North Korea met South Korea in a table tennis battle at London 2012. The match, which brought together two nations who are technically at war, continued the grand Olympic tradition of throwing the spotlight on political tussles.
Thousands squeezed into the ExCel Centre to watch what looked like spirited ping-pong but was, in effect, the venting of political tensions. Some may have hoped for an amusing diplomatic gaffe. On the very first night of the Games, North Korea's women's footballers refused to play at Hampden Park in Glasgow after their picture appeared on a big screen next to South Korea's flag. But yesterday's match began without incident, although the stony faces of the players revealed their determination.
Things started sedately as gangly South Korean Oh Sang-Eun took the floor, sporting black shorts and T-shirt, with red, white and blue stripes and a badge of his country's flag, to avoid any confusion. His much smaller North Korean opponent Kim Hyok Bong, wearing blue shorts and red T-shirt, had the air of an underdog. Despite the much-touted grudge-match expectations, they hit the ball back and forth in what could be described as a gentlemanly exchange. "Slightly nervy stuff here," the commentator explained helpfully.
It was all a far cry from the threats to launch cruise missiles and threats to crush incursions that usually characterise the neighbouring nations' exchanges. Fears of another conflict have been heightened recently by the North Korea's nuclear testing as Kim Jong Un has taken over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. In April, South Korea's Major General Shin Won-Sik responded to a failed rocket launch by North Korea by announcing: "Our military will sternly and thoroughly punish reckless provocations by North Korea while maintaining our firm readiness." All of that was put aside yesterday as the games were played scrupulously within the rules and under the scrutiny of the French and South African umpires.
Things livened up during the final and deciding men's single matches as furious salvoes of forehands, backhands, bounds and gymnastic jumps ensued. Fists were thrust in the air in triumph at every win, as the crowd's cheering and clapping built with each successive point. South Korean player Ryu Seung-Min eventually sealed a dramatic team event victory, securing his nation's place in the quarter-finals.
The result was as it should have been, with South Korean team members Joo Se-Hyuk, Oh Sang-Eun and Ryu ranked 10th, 11th and 17th respectively in the world. By comparison, North Korea's Kim Hyok Bong, Jang Song-Man and King Song-Nam languish in 77th, 59th and 181st place.
The doubles contest, in which King Song-Nam and Jang Song-Man tackled Ryu and Oh, was more closely fought. But South Korea enjoyed victory here as well.
The south's excitable coach, Yoo Nam-Kyu, admitted afterwards that the whole team feels the pressure when his players tackle their neighbours: "We are the same people and speak the same language, but, politically, we are not very friendly at the moment. From the history we felt we have to win against North Korea - because it's North Korea."