RIO DE JANEIRO — The crowd is going wild for Gustavo Tsuboi. GU-STA-VO! GU-STA-VO! BRA-ZIL! BRA-ZIL! He gets a standing ovation, flags waving.
Gustavo just lost 4-0 in the first round of the Olympic table tennis tournament to Jianan Wang, an unranked player who emigrated from China to the Republic of the Congo because he wasn’t good enough to make the Chinese table tennis team. (This is common: Also competing are Chinese-born Slovakian player Yang Wang, Chinese-born Qatari player Li Peng, Chinese-born Ukranian player Kou Le, and Chinese-born Spanish player He Zhiwen, who the Spanish call "Juanito" because they don’t feel like learning how to properly pronounce "He Zhiwen.")
With his quick, violent elimination, Gustavo becomes one of the least important athletes at the Olympics. His participation in the table tennis tournament is a footnote in an event that kinda seems like a footnote itself: The tournament is held in one of the pavilions of Riocentro, a dimly lit, un-air conditioned convention center with rows of temporary bleachers. Tickets are 50 reals, or about $17.
And yet the crowd is treating him like he’s Pele.
Maybe this is a testament to the impressive ability of the Brazilian people to make any event featuring a Brazilian athlete into a party. But I think it also provides a window into the beauty of Olympic table tennis, an event that makes superheroes out of very regular-seeming people.
Gustavo is 5’6 and weighs 140 pounds. He doesn’t have a weightlifters squat torso; he doesn’t have a sprinter’s elongated limbs; he doesn’t have a basketball player’s statuesque height. All of the table tennis players are in shape, but they just look like normal in-shape people.
We have all played table tennis, but really, most of us have actually played ping pong. What we do is not tennis on a table. It’s a fun little competitive thing to pass time. It’s not something we spend our waking hours practicing. It’s a game.
It’s truly amazing to watch someone who has absolutely mastered a game we’re used to considering casually. The shots these players hit are mind-blowing. They gracefully curve the ball onto the table from 15 feet away. They return smashes most of us wouldn’t dream of laying a racket to. Their opponent feeds them a heavily spun lightning quick shot, and they reply with an equally quick, equally spun retort.
Watching Olympic table tennis serves as a reminder of the enormous gap between a regular human and an Olympian. It’s a gap we can’t quite grasp when we watch, say, rowing. We’re told that what the rowers are doing is quite impressive. But, like, all the boats look like they’re doing pretty much the same thing. How hard could it be?
So hard. So, so, so, so, so, so, so, so freakin’ hard. Jesus. Every Olympian is so good at their sport. Every Olympian has lived a drastically different life than most of us, in hopes of becoming great at their chosen sport. And the worst ones could absolutely whoop most of us regular people, even if we’ve played their sport in passing.
Gustavo got absolutely rocked. He won some points against Wang, but they always seemed to be the result of unforced errors by Wang, not brilliant play by Gustavo.
Sunday night, Wang got absolutely rocked by a Swedish player in the second round, losing four of five sets. The Swedish guy is likely to get beaten by the 7th-ranked Belarussian player in the next round. And no matter what, eventually somebody is going to lose to a Chinese player — the ones the Chinese-born Ukranians and Qatari and Congolese left their homelands to avoid competing with. (China has the top four players in the world, but were only allowed to send two to the Olympics.)
And yet the crowd knows Gustavo Tsuboi is an incredible table tennis player. Watching him play, we understand that he could ruin our life with a ping pong racket. He takes this tiny white ball that most of us sloppily plop back and forth, and he applies incredible precision, power, and pace to it. If I tried to beat him in table tennis, I would legitimately cry.
Giggle at Olympic table tennis all you want. Call it ping pong even. But if you watch for a few seconds, you’ll quickly begin to marvel at how spectacular the players are. And that’s the point of the Olympics, right?