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  • Every other night in Japan,

  • I step out of my apartment,

  • I climb up a hill for 15 minutes,

  • and then I head into my local health club,

  • where three ping-pong tables are set up in a studio.

  • And space is limited,

  • so at every table,

  • one pair of players practices forehands,

  • another practices backhands,

  • and every now and then, the balls collide in midair

  • and everybody says, "Wow!"

  • Then, choosing lots, we select partners and play doubles.

  • But I honestly couldn't tell you who's won,

  • because we change partners every five minutes.

  • And everybody is trying really hard

  • to win points,

  • but nobody is keeping track of who is winning games.

  • And after an hour or so of furious exertion,

  • I can honestly tell you

  • that not knowing who has won

  • feels like the ultimate victory.

  • In Japan, it's been said,

  • they've created a competitive spirit without competition.

  • Now, all of you know that geopolitics is best followed by watching ping-pong.

  • (Laughter)

  • The two strongest powers in the world were fiercest enemies

  • until, in 1972, an American ping-pong team

  • was allowed to visit Communist China.

  • And as soon as the former adversaries

  • were gathered around some small green tables,

  • each of them could claim a victory,

  • and the whole world could breathe more easily.

  • China's leader, Mao Zedong,

  • wrote a whole manual on ping-pong,

  • and he called the sport "a spiritual nuclear weapon."

  • And it's been said that the only honorary lifelong member

  • of the US Table Tennis Association

  • is the then-President Richard Nixon,

  • who helped to engineer this win-win situation

  • through ping-pong diplomacy.

  • But long before that,

  • really, the history of the modern world

  • was best told through the bouncing white ball.

  • "Ping-pong" sounds like a cousin of "sing-song,"

  • like something Eastern,

  • but actually, it's believed that it was invented by high-class Brits

  • during Victorian times,

  • who started hitting wine corks over walls of books after dinner.

  • (Laughter)

  • No exaggeration.

  • (Laughter)

  • And by the end of World War I,

  • the sport was dominated by players from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire:

  • eight out of nine early world championships

  • were claimed by Hungary.

  • And Eastern Europeans grew so adept

  • at hitting back everything that was hit at them

  • that they almost brought the whole sport to a standstill.

  • In one championship match in Prague in 1936,

  • the first point is said to have lasted two hours and 12 minutes.

  • The first point!

  • Longer than a "Mad Max" movie.

  • And according to one of the players, the umpire had to retire with a sore neck

  • before the point was concluded.

  • (Laughter)

  • That player started hitting the ball back with his left hand

  • and dictating chess moves between shots.

  • (Laughter)

  • Many in the audience started, of course, filing out,

  • as that single point lasted maybe 12,000 strokes.

  • And an emergency meeting of the International Table Tennis Association

  • had to be held then and there,

  • and soon the rules were changed

  • so that no game could last longer than 20 minutes.

  • (Laughter)

  • Sixteen years later, Japan entered the picture,

  • when a little-known watchmaker called Hiroji Satoh

  • showed up at the world championships in Bombay in 1952.

  • And Satoh was not very big, he wasn't highly rated,

  • he was wearing spectacles,

  • but he was armed with a paddle that was not pimpled,

  • as other paddles were,

  • but covered by a thick spongy rubber foam.

  • And thanks to this silencing secret weapon,

  • the little-known Satoh won a gold medal.

  • One million people came out into the streets of Tokyo

  • to greet him upon his return,

  • and really, Japan's postwar resurgence was set into motion.

  • What I learned, though, at my regular games in Japan,

  • is more what could be called the inner sport of global domination,

  • sometimes known as life.

  • We never play singles in our club,

  • only doubles,

  • and because, as I say, we change partners every five minutes,

  • if you do happen to lose, you're very likely to win

  • six minutes later.

  • We also play best-of-two sets,

  • so often, there's no loser at all.

  • Ping-pong diplomacy.

  • And I always remember that as a boy growing up in England,

  • I was taught that the point of a game was to win.

  • But in Japan, I'm encouraged to believe that, really, the point of a game

  • is to make as many people as possible around you feel that they are winners.

  • So you're not careening up and down as an individual might,

  • but you're part of a regular, steady chorus.

  • The most skillful players in our club

  • deploy their skills to turn a 9-1 lead for their team

  • into a 9-9 game in which everybody is intensely involved.

  • And my friend who hits these high, looping lobs

  • that smaller players flail at and miss --

  • well, he wins a lot of points, but I think he's thought of as a loser.

  • In Japan, a game of ping-pong is really like an act of love.

  • You're learning how to play with somebody,

  • rather than against her.

  • And I'll confess,

  • at first, this seemed to me to take all the fun out of the sport.

  • I couldn't exult after a tremendous upset victory against our strongest players,

  • because six minutes later, with a new partner,

  • I was falling behind again.

  • On the other hand, I never felt disconsolate.

  • And when I flew away from Japan and started playing singles again

  • with my English archrival,

  • I noticed that after every defeat, I was really brokenhearted.

  • But after every victory, I couldn't sleep either,

  • because I knew there was only one way to go,

  • and that was down.

  • Now, if I were trying to do business in Japan,

  • this would lead to endless frustration.

  • In Japan, unlike elsewhere,

  • if the score is still level after four hours,

  • a baseball game ends in a tie,

  • and because the league standings are based on winning percentage,

  • a team with quite a few ties can finish ahead

  • of a team with more victories.

  • One of the first times an American was ever brought over to Japan

  • to lead a professional Japanese baseball team,

  • Bobby Valentine, in 1995,

  • he took this really mediocre squad,

  • he lead them to a stunning second-place finish,

  • and he was instantly fired.

  • Why?

  • "Well," said the team spokesman,

  • "because of his emphasis on winning."

  • (Laughter)

  • Official Japan can feel quite a lot like that point

  • that was said to last two hours and 12 minutes,

  • and playing not to lose

  • can take all the imagination, the daring, the excitement, out of things.

  • At the same time, playing ping-pong in Japan

  • reminds me why choirs regularly enjoy more fun

  • than soloists.

  • In a choir, your only job is to play your small part perfectly,

  • to hit your notes with feeling,

  • and by so doing, to help to create a beautiful harmony

  • that's much greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Yes, every choir does need a conductor,

  • but I think a choir releases you from a child's simple sense of either-ors.

  • You come to see that the opposite of winning isn't losing --

  • it's failing to see the larger picture.

  • As my life goes on,

  • I'm really startled to see that no event

  • can properly be assessed for years after it has unfolded.

  • I once lost everything I owned in the world,

  • every last thing, in a wildfire.

  • But in time, I came to see that it was that seeming loss

  • that allowed me to live on the earth more gently,

  • to write without notes,

  • and actually, to move to Japan

  • and the inner health club known as the ping-pong table.

  • Conversely, I once stumbled into the perfect job,

  • and I came to see that seeming happiness

  • can stand in the way of true joy

  • even more than misery does.

  • Playing doubles in Japan really relieves me of all my anxiety,

  • and at the end of an evening,

  • I notice everybody is filing out in a more or less equal state of delight.

  • I'm reminded every night

  • that not getting ahead isn't the same thing as falling behind

  • any more than not being lively is the same thing as being dead.

  • And I've come to understand why it is

  • that Chinese universities are said to offer degrees in ping-pong,

  • and why researchers have found that ping-pong

  • can actually help a little with mild mental disorders

  • and even autism.

  • But as I watch the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,

  • I'm going to be keenly aware

  • that it won't be possible to tell who's won or who's lost

  • for a very long time.

  • You remember that point I mentioned

  • that was said to last for two hours and 12 minutes?

  • Well, one of the players from that game ended up, six years later,

  • in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau.

  • But he walked out alive.

  • Why?

  • Simply because a guard in the gas chamber

  • recognized him from his ping-pong playing days.

  • Had he been the winner of that epic match?

  • It hardly mattered.

  • As you recall, many people had filed out before even the first point was concluded.

  • The only thing that saved him

  • was the fact that he took part.

  • The best way to win any game,

  • Japan tells me every other night,

  • is never, never to think about the score.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

Every other night in Japan,

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【TED】Pico Iyer: What ping-pong taught me about life (What ping-pong taught me about life | Pico Iyer)

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    林宜悉 posted on 2019/09/19
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