RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Decades ago, table tennis players provided one of the West's first openings to communist China. It was described as ping pong diplomacy. Now table tennis may provide a different sort of opening at the Beijing Olympics. The United States will be represented by players for whom the trip to China feels like going home. All four members were born in China. That includes the team's top female player, Gao Jun.
Chinese dominates the world of ping-pong, though there's an effort to change that. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.
FRANK LANGFITT: By athletic standards, Gao Jun is old - 39 years old. Some years back she thought about retiring, then China won its bid to host the Summer Olympics.
Ms. GAO JUN (Ping-Pong Player): I feel like, oh, Olympics in Beijing - that's going to be, you know, a lot of fun. So I think, oh, maybe I can play, and maybe I can go.
LANGFITT: Gao used to play for China. In 1992, she won a silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Later, she moved to the U.S. to get married. But playing here was frustrating. In China, ping-pong is a serious sport you can watch on TV. Here it's something you play in a basement, like air hockey.
Ms. GAO: Table tennis in the U.S. is really - I cannot say it's that - but it's really no good.
LANGFITT: In fact, Gao says the competition is so poor here, she has to live most of the year in Shanghai just to keep her skills up.
Gao's game looks nothing like the one you see in American rec rooms. Here she is warming up with an opponent at a club near her former home in Maryland. Her sneakers squeak as she slides back and forth across the floor. She flicks her paddle, firing the ball at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour.
To get a feel for the Olympic level game, I pick up a paddle.
Ms. GAO: Ready?
LANGFITT: Yeah. No, I'm sure I'm not, but go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GAO: Oh.
LANGFITT: That's Gao's reaction as I send her first serve sailing off the table. When she serves she slices the ball with her paddle. It comes corkscrewing towards me. I knock this one straight into the net.
(Soundbite of ball bouncing)
LANGFITT: So I can't get it up over the net.
Ms. GAO: If you cannot read my spin.
LANGFITT: Then I can't return it?
Ms. GAO: No.
LANGFITT: Gao remarks on my form. She's appalled.
Ms. GAO: Look how you hold your racket. It's like you're holding a knife.
LANGFITT: Yeah, it is.
Beijing marks Gao's fourth Olympics. Some younger U.S. players think that's too many. Unable to make their national team, older Chinese players often go abroad and then dominate the teams of other countries.
That's what Chen Weixing did. He now plays for Austria. Today he's demonstrating a serve at Club Joola, a ping-pong center outside Washington, D.C.
Mr. CHEN WEIXING (Ping-Pong Player): You must go like this.
LANGFITT: One of his student's is 16-year-old Amaresh Sahu. Sahu admires Chinese-born players, but he also resents them.
Mr. AMARESH SAHU (Student): I think it's good for us to see their styles. But I think for them to take up so many spots again and again and again, and just refuse the talented players here to go up to international competition is kind of wrong. And you don't really know if they're really playing for us, or they just want to go play.
LANGFITT: The International Table Tennis Federation wants to make it easier for people like Sahu. Earlier this year, it made a new rule. Most foreign players must live in their adopted country for a period of time before they can compete for their new nation overseas. The rule, though, doesn't apply to the Olympics, and it isn't retroactive.
Richard Lee runs Club Joola. He says the restrictions may give native-born players more chances at home.
Mr. RICHARD LEE: But the problem is once the U.S. players go overseas and suddenly play a Chinese player or a European player, they're going to get crushed.
LANGFITT: Gao Jun admits that she takes opportunities away from native-born players. But she says fans want to see competitive matches, and often that means Chinese against Chinese. With Gao pushing 40, I ask her about the future.
Ms. GAO: I think after 2008 I will stop. But maybe, who knows, after four years, next Olympics come, I think, oh, still nobody can beat me in the U.S. Maybe I'll start again. I don't know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LANGFITT: For now though she's focused on this month at the Beijing University gymnasium where the crowd will be a sell out and no one will equate ping-pong with air hockey.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: See a video of ping-pong player Gao Jun in action at our Web site, npr.org.
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