Americans, rejoice! We've made one giant leap toward table tennis glory!
BEIJING -- My fellow Americans, puff up your chests with pride. Put a new spring in your step. Feel your self-esteem rise.
We have reached the elite eight of women's team table tennis!
Our long national nightmare is nearly over. No longer are we pingpong pansies. No longer are we a bunch of basement-playing poseurs who cannot handle the spins and smashes of big-time competition.
The great breakthrough came Thursday at Peking University Gymnasium. Our intrepid, courageous, iron-willed women have advanced to the bronze-medal round. They're one of eight teams still paddling -- dazzling news that should shove Michael Phelps off the front page.
"We're thrilled," said American team leader Bob Fox.
Question for Bob: What is our nation's best-ever Olympic table-tennis performance?
"This is the best," he said. "You're looking at it."
And so we were, watching the Yanks wallop the Nigerians 3-0 in a matter of mere minutes. Earlier, our women had lost to powerful Singapore and stunned the Netherlands. Our 2-1 record in pool play was good enough to give us a shot at our first table-tennis medal.
From Key West to Nome, let the street parties commence!
(We pause briefly for ticker-tape tossing and sailors kissing dames.)
OK, now I suppose it's time to tell the rest of the story.
Those intrepid, courageous, iron-willed women of ours? They're all ringers. Chinese imports. Say "ni hao" to Gao Jun, product of Baoding; Wang Chen of Beijing; and Crystal Xi Huang of Changsha. And don't forget our lone male entrant, David Zhuang, who was born in Guangzhou.
All of them are ours now. But Gao, the team's best player and a 1992 Chinese Olympian, doesn't even live in the United States anymore after formerly residing in Gaithersburg, Md. She's based in Shanghai.
"If I stay in the U.S., it's very hard to keep my level," Gao said. "Nobody to practice with. If I want to keep my level, I have to find a good place to train. The best place to train is China."
Fact is, table tennis remains an American hobby, not an American sport.
"We can't figure out a way to make table tennis competitive in our country," Fox said.
But it's insanely competitive here in Beijing. And popular.
Fact is, table tennis in China is like basketball in Indiana and football in Texas. It is mania. It is 6,200 seats at Peking U. -- an insufficient number, according to Gao.
"This venue not big enough," she said, adding that there are many larger ones in Beijing.
"Beijing is the best place for people to compete in table tennis," Gao said. "You see so many spectators. Chinese people just love to watch the sport. Not just here, but on TV."
(Maybe that's what it will take to get the sport out of the basement and into schools in America -- a TV contract. Can't ESPN do its part to further the cause?)
The too-small crowd was still plenty loud Thursday, roaring lustily as eight matches played out at once on the gym floor below. When a player from Taipei beat a player from Korea in a thrilling overtime match, he pumped his fist and bellowed like Tiger Woods on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines.
This ain't beer pong. This is serious.
How big are the stars of table tennis?
"Like Kobe Bryant in China," said Wang Chen. "Lots of advertisements on TV."
(The mind envisions Chinese men's star Wang Hao urging his countrymen to Obey Your Thirst.)
China keeps its best players home, of course. This year, the world's top five women and top four men are Chinese, but only three make the team.
Then it outsources some of its depth. America is not the only beneficiary. Check out some of the not-quite-native-sounding names on some other rosters:
The Netherlands has Li Jiao and Li Jie. Austria has Li Qiangbing and Jia Liu. The Dominican Republic has Qian Lian and Wu Xue.
The Beijing Games are a homecoming for many of them, a chance to play before friends and family and be recognized by the sport's fans. But they also get questions about playing in a foreign uniform.
Fox said he recalls being asked about Gao, "Why does she play for the U.S.? The U.S. is no good at table tennis. The U.S. is basketball."
His response: "Yeah, but she doesn't play basketball."
Like basketball prodigies who are recruited to play on AAU travel teams in the States, China scouts for talented young pingpongers. Gao was selected at age 5 for intensive table-tennis training, eventually practicing for up to eight hours a day and then playing more on her own in the evenings.
Wang grew up in similar fashion. At age 7, she and her classmates were asked to throw three pingpong balls into a basket from 10 feet away. She made all three, and was chosen for the school's team. From there, she advanced to a school that specialized in table tennis and soccer.
By 1996, she had risen to No. 4 in the world rankings. That's good -- but not good enough to make the Chinese national team. Gao did get there, winning a silver medal for China in Barcelona.
So here they both are in their home country, wearing the uniforms of another nation.
"To play for China is pressure," Gao said. "When you play for China, you want to win the gold. It's not just to play for a medal."
In a red-white-and-blue uniform, playing for a medal is the pinnacle of achievement.
"It's so hard for our team to win the bronze," Gao said. "But we're going to try. Even a 1 percent chance, we've got to try."
Bring it home, adopted sister. American pride is riding on it.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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