The Sticky Business of Table Tennis

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Timo Boll and Christian Seuss of Germany in action against Liqin Wang and Hao Wang from China on Aug. 18

The thing about the Olympics is that if you start to wander around, you never know what you'll find. Case in point: I was walking outside of the table tennis venue at Peking University this week when I saw this sign — "Gluing Tent." Actually, I smelled it before I saw it — that sweetly sharp, pungent odor of Elmer's gone wild. With fond memories of those grade school glue highs, I popped in, hoping for a much-needed week two lift, and maybe some bonding moments with a few fellow sniffers, and saw a long table, a dozen or so chairs and one very happy volunteer. (Too zoned out, no doubt, to kick me out and tell me I didn’t belong there.) Even without open pots of the sticky stuff around, the tent was pretty fragrant.

This can't be, I thought — a glue sniffing tent? Really? At the Olympics? Weird, but, you know, pretty progressive of the International Olympic Committee. "Jia you" Jacques Rogge!

After my initial excitement, I figured that the table tennis elite must actually whack through their paddles pretty quickly, and maybe needed some sort of pit station for repairing their rubber. But not being a ping pong — sorry, table tennis — aficionado, I asked Bob Fox, team leader for USA Table Tennis, for some help, and found out how wrong I was. "They don't worry about the rubber falling off the paddle," he explained. Fox said the pros apply glue to the paddles and use its tackiness to their advantage. "The effect is one of increasing the speed and spin when you contact the ball."

Wow. Who knew glue could do that? It seems that unlike us basement ping pong champions, table tennis athletes can actually use glue to snap the ball across the table in some pretty astounding ways. Think of slathering your palms with jelly or something equally slippery and then putting your hands together — "that's the springy effect that glue on glue provides," said Fox. Since the 1950s, when table tennis players stopped using hard-backed paddles that consisted of rubber on wood, athletes have been using paddles, or bats, that include a layer of sponge between the paddle and the rubber — anywhere between 2mm and 4mm, according to International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) rules. That sponge, and the glue layered between it and the rubber, can give players a cushion that helps them to spin and direct the ball better.

The key, though, is to time the gluing just right. There is a magic moment just before the glue dries when it's hard enough to stick, but still tacky enough to give. That's when players at the Games want to hit the tables. If they don't, it's pong-demonium. "One of our players melted down [in a previous competition] because the match in front of her was delayed," said Fox, "so she thought her glue was losing its effect." Table tennis can be so stressful.

And do you think the players would entrust their precious paddles to just anybody? Oh, no. They trek to the gluing tent themselves — by international rules, it has to be someplace well ventilated — some 10-15 minutes before they have to play, and engage in the ritualistic application process. After each meet, they peel off the rubber so the paddle is ready for its next gluing. They bring out small plastic pots of glue with brushes and quickly slather on the glue to the outside of their paddle. Vertical stripes? Horizontal bars? Swirly circles? Each player has his own pattern, and once they find one, they rarely stray from it. Some even bring small metal rolling pins, to flatten out any bubbles or uneven surfaces.

And then they wait for the glue to dry — almost. Nobody moves from his station, afraid to lose sight of his all-important bat, which could fall prey to a devious glue-tamperer. (And besides, who'd want to leave such a happy-smelling place?) The ITTF mandates that the glue cannot contain volatile chemicals, and only allows adhesives approved by the federation. They also collect every athlete's bat 30 minutes prior to a match and run it through a rigorous inspection for weight, sponge thickness and volatile compounds, returning the paddles in Ziploc bags to the referee just before play begins.

But beginning September 1, the ITTF will enforce even stricter limits on the volatile agents in glue, pretty much restricting players to a water-based compound that doesn't have the same springy effect. "A lot of players are complaining about the glue," said Chen Wang, the US's top-ranked women's player and the first American to reach the quarterfinals in Olympic competition, "because the glue has no power, the ball drops a lot."

Players may just have to accept the inferior stuff, however, since the ITTF is on a crusade to make table tennis more fan — and viewer — friendly. Releasing fewer toxic fumes into the air is one step. They also want to make the action a little easier to follow. After making its Olympic debut in Seoul in 1988, officials decided it was too hard to follow the fast-flying ball as it zipped from one end of the table to the other, so for the 2000 Games, they increased the regulation ball size to 40mm so even the most glassy-eyed couch potatoes could see it better on TV. The next year, they lowered the score scale so sets ended after 11 instead of 21 excruciating points.

What's next? How about the uniforms? In Beijing, ITTF vice president Claude Bergeret has been telling anyone with a tape recorder that the female table tennis players should not be afraid to shake things up a bit in the wardrobe department. The baggy shirts — the same as the ones the men wear — don't do much to set the female players apart. "We are trying to push the players to use skirts and also nicer shirts...with more curves," he told the China Daily.

The bikini-clad beach volleyball dancers set quite a high bar, but we're with you, Claude, and so are many of the players. "I think women should wear a dress like tennis players, I think our dress is so boring, not sexy," said Wang. And if that doesn't work, the ITTF might want to think about opening up that glue tent to the spectators.