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

79 Folder Collection
林宜悉 published on September 20, 2019
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