The grand opening of Ping London took place in the equally grand location of the newly refurbished St Pancras station and what a great occasion it was. Jointly organised by Sport England, Sing London, the participatory arts organisation, and the often staid English Table Tennis Association, it was anything but a staid affair. All the great and the beautiful of the table tennis world were there including at least two former England champions. They did theirusual showpiece performances which the non-ping part of the audience lapped up, but the real buzz of the evening was taking place away from the show courts, the VIPís and the cameras. The essence of Sing London is not about table tennis superstars but rather the ordinary punter on the street that might just fancy a casual game of ping on the way home from work. It was this real and tangible magical essence that was on display at St Pancras yesterday.

Down on the lower concourse of St Pancras, away from the bright celebrity lights, there were no less than five ping tables ( with a further six upstairs) for the use of passers-by and they were never empty for the five hour duration. That augers well for the Ping London project which runs for four weeks throughout the summer, with one hundred tables being strategically placed across the capital. I hadnít planned to roll my sleeves and pick up a bat, but being the highly addictive game that ping is, it wasnít long before I found myself part of the volunteer team that the ETTA had assembled for the occasion. As is invariably the case, it was a richly rewarding experience.

The range of participants truly reflected Londonís global reach. First up for me was a father and son pair from Belgium, and although we never got to trading blows in a real game, I could tell immediately that he was no novice. Like proficiency in any sport, it is immediately noticeable to fellow practitioners. The son was definitely useful. Table tennis is quite big on the continent with thousands of outdoor tables dotted around the parks and public spaces. Ping London seeks to emulate that popular sporting culture for the next four weeks. The challenge for Sport England and the ETTA is to make that culture permanent. Every government and non-government official connected with the Olympic Games is tearing their hair out trying to create an Olympic legacy. If they had been at St Pancras last night, the answer would have been staring them in the face. ††

My next customer, so to speak was an elderly gentleman who, once enticed onto the table, was rather difficult to get off. He simply was in his element trying to recreate the skills he obviously had in his younger day. He was a lovely gentle character who was equally happy knocking with some passing kids as he was with the more structured play that I was able to offer him. In this wonderfully graphic moment, he proved that age was no barrier to taking some gentle exercise on the table tennis table. His name was Dan and although Iím damn sure he wonít be reading this blog, I send him my morning greetings and thank him for the game.

Next up was a young man in his early twenties who had definitely played before. We had a good knock-about for about fifteen minutes when I paused to ask him where he usually played. Without a moments hesitation or embarrassment he duly informed me that he got his practise in prison and could I tell him where his nearest club was now that he was a free man. I attempted a stupid joke about him having a captive audience, which he was good natured enough to laugh along with, and we then carried on with our rallies until his mate came along and dragged him away. I never did get to direct him to a club but I did manage to call out the ETTAís web address as he was leaving.

Then came dad and his six year old daughter. He had a few clumsy hits first and then promptly passed the bat over to his offspring in the hope that she would perform better than he. She didnít of course but for the next five minutes of intense concentration she did her level best to hit the ball. Most times she missed completely, which could have been down to my poor coaching, but the main thing was that she left with a huge smile on her face. Job done!

Then in fairly rapid succession came some Brazilians, some Aussies and a Kurdish gentleman from Northern Iraq, more of which in a moment. One of the Brazilians had a tricky style and although he was no champion it took some concentration on my part to ensure I correctly read the spin while at the same time returning it in a neutral sort of way. By this stage I was working up a bit of a sweat. The Aussies waited patiently for their turn and they also could keep the ball on the table. It is my hope and firm belief that these little casual sporting encounters can do more than any number of formal tourist type visits to make to make a visitorís trip to London memorable. The Palace and the Tower may be must-dos on the tourist list, but a friendly game of Ping when you least expect it, is priceless. ††

Then there was the Iraqi. He didnít actually play, though I have no idea whether it was because he didnít fancy it or that we were just too engrossed in our discussion of war, imperialism and human nature. Our discussion on the role of women in the Ďnewí Iraq was particularly engaging and he seemed content to stay and chat indefinitely. London, perhaps like few other places on the planet, affords such privileged discussions if only we take the time to engage. The casual nature of Ping London makes such conversations that much more likely.

By this stage I was starting to tire and other members of the voluntary team took over, but the diversity on and around the table showed no sign of waning. Two, possible three Somalian families arrived in the vicinity and the kids made a natural bee-line for the tables. And thatís where they stayed until mum finally took them home over an hour and a half later. With incredible patience and skill from one of the ETTAís development officers, these happy, joyful youngsters just got better and better. By the time of departure, all of them (about six or seven) could keep the ball on the table fairly consistently. Other kids started to join in, proving, if proof were needed, that given the right environment, kids would rather play together than knife each other. The sheer fun and joy those kids got from that chance table tennis encounter was worth as much if not more than all the money spent of grandiose Olympic stadiums and associated corporate infrastructure.

What I have recounted on just one table was being replicated throughout St Pancras on all the other tables. The launch of Ping London was a huge success not because of the star-studded celebrity event that was taking place upstairs, complete with exhibitions, speeches, drinks and nibbles. No, the real action was taking place spontaneously throughout the station, unplanned, unscripted and unrehearsed. This, of course is exactly what Ping London is seeking to replicate over the next four weeks across London. It will inevitable succeed because success is in the very genetic make-up of the project. More reports to follow.

End JPK 23/7/10 Copyright

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