I had to go and watch some ping-pong – it would be like going to Korea and not trying fried dog – it would just be rude. The sport is absolutely huge over here and you see people playing it in parks and public spaces all over the place. In the enormous bus park across from the Main Press Centre I ask a volunteer which bus I need to take to go see the ping-pong. She looks blankly at me.
"Where is the ping-pong... the table tennis?" I correct myself.
"Ah, table tennis... bus MB40 row 2, have glorious day." She gives me a lovely, huge smile. I know that they've all supposedly been trained to give lovely, huge smiles but it feels good. I hop on my bus and we head off towards the University of Beijing – I hope I haven't offended her by using the word ping-pong. I thought it was Chinese anyway. I'm very confused.
After half an hour of steaming down the Olympic lane (something I'm really getting used to and am going to find hard to relinquish when I'm back in the UK) we get to the venue. Before we are allowed to enter the building we have to give all our details to some serious-looking security officials – Name? Who we work for? What hotel we're staying in? Mobile number? It takes a good 10 minutes before they let us in. This is not normal procedure for any other venue so I wonder whether they are expecting trouble. I secretly hope so ... it would make it all very interesting.
I take my seat inside yet another huge, blue Olympic venue – below me on a vivid red floor are eight squared-off areas with a blue table tennis table plonked right in the middle of each one. This, I realise, is going to be an awful lot of table tennis to watch at one time– I decide to try to pick one particular match and concentrate on that.
I'm 15 minutes early but am "entertained", as usual, by the Fuwa mascots. They enter the hall and dance like mentalists to a track that uses a sampled recording of a bouncing table tennis ball for a beat. They don't miss a trick these Chinese– it's all very impressive and maddeningly catchy.
I notice that the Tibetan Fuwa is slightly out of sync with the rest of the mascots during their dance. Maybe this is the expected trouble. Maybe the real Tibetan Fuwa has been kidnapped and replaced by a crazed Buddhist monk who is going to do something orange and non-violent any minute now. I hold my breath and wait ... two minutes pass and I can't hold my breath any more or I'll die and, besides, I'm not quite sure why I'm holding my breath anyway. The Fuwas exit the arena and my theory lies in tatters.
The players march in and begin to warm up. Back and forth, back and forth go the eight little white balls – it's quite hypnotising, the metronomic repetitiveness sends me off into a Zen-like trance. I'm watching eight simultaneous rallies of up to 40 shots... Where do they learn to play like this? Are there secret table tennis academies high on clouded mystic hills where students travel far to learn from the great ping-pong master? I imagine huge halls filled with eager students, wearing tight little blue shorts and all endlessly chanting "topspin, backspin, topspin, backspin" while a wizened old man with a huge long beard plays trance-like music on a huge harp shaped like a table tennis bat.
There are no Brits playing (memo to self – we must get Lottery funding to set up our own academy – maybe somewhere high up in the Cotswolds? I could even send my own kids there. They could be Olympians in 2012 and I'd get access to the Olympic Athletes' Family Lounge – which has free beer... This definitely sounds like a plan.)
The matches begin for real and I'm astonished to find that the games are only up to 11, not 21 like I'm used to. In between games the players go off into a corner and talk to their trainers. I wonder what a table tennis trainer can say to make his player's game better.
"Remember, grasshopper, always focus on the white ball... Nothing in this game for two in the net."
I find it very difficult to keep concentrating on one match and keep flicking from table to table. If I'm honest, it's not really as exciting as I'd hoped. It doesn't help that the venue is not that full. Table tennis being so huge over here, I assumed that this would be a sell-out – but not so. I've heard rumours about the Chinese authorities bussing in crowds to empty stadiums to make everything look busy. They clearly didn't think that this one was going to be a problem.
I watch for an hour or so and then can't take any more. I get up, pack my binoculars, camera and computer into my official Olympic rucksack and get the bus back to the MPC. All the way back, I can't get that bloody ping-pong ball beat out of my head – it's going to give me nightmares...