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The Art Of Table Tennis: Tiny Details Matter A Lot


It is a sport of lightning speed and delicate finesse.


GREENE: We're talking about table tennis. The final competition in this year's Olympics will be tonight in Rio. The men's gold-medal team match pits China against Japan. As NPR's Melissa Block reports, this is a sport where tiny details matter a lot.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: First of all...


BLOCK: Massimo Costantini will be our table-tennis guide. He's the Olympic coach for the U.S. team.

COSTANTINI: The light has to be uniform.

BLOCK: That means no shadows or blind spots in the venue. That tiny white ball might be coming at speeds of some 60 miles an hour. And Olympic-level players will be looking for the logo on the ball for that split second as it approaches to get an important clue about spin.

COSTANTINI: Not seeing the logo means super spinning because the ball spins too much, and you are not able to see it (laughter). If you are able to see the logo, it means there is very, very little speed.

BLOCK: Players will be looking at the logo to figure out the type of spin, too.

COSTANTINI: Backspin or a topspin or a sidespin.

BLOCK: The official ball being used at the Olympics, it's from a Chinese supplier, Double Happiness Sports.


BLOCK: Now to the second crucial factor in the venue...


BLOCK: After all, that table tennis ball weighs only nine one-hundredths of an ounce.

COSTANTINI: A strong AC normally is a killer for us.

BLOCK: Too much air conditioning, coach Costantini says, will wreak havoc on the ball's path.

COSTANTINI: It create vortex of wind, and the ball subtly change the trajectory. So we thought something, and it comes something else.

BLOCK: in practice rounds here at the Olympic venue, players complained the AC was too strong. Strange things were happening to the paths of the table tennis balls.

COSTANTINI: Maybe lower suddenly or turning right and left. So that was not good.

BLOCK: And the problem was fixed, Costantini says. But too little AC can cause its own set of problems.

COSTANTINI: If you switch off the AC and the venue is too crowded, after some time, the venue became too humid and then also is affecting the feeling on the ball because the ball gets wet (laughter).

BLOCK: Apart from the technical factors that can make or break a table tennis player, Costantini says there's one that's entirely within the athlete's control. And that's learning how to manage winning and losing.

COSTANTINI: You win point, you lose points. So live it. Live with that. And then try to accept. Try to welcome and learn from that. So that is the part that I love the most.

BLOCK: A lesson for table tennis - and for life - from U.S. coach Massimo Costantini. Melissa Block, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.