The table tennis story: How table tennis began

Everyone knows it and everyone has played it before: table tennis. Because table tennis is a sport that can be played quickly and in many places. Be it in the school yard, where even today a table tennis table can be found almost everywhere, in the club or at home, by quickly rebuilding the home kitchen table. But where does this sport actually come from? How did the table tennis story take its course?

No one can really answer this question, because there are various myths about table tennis history. Some claim that fast ball sport originated in India, others remain England as a starting point. What is certain is that the Rückschlagsport was first mentioned in writing at the end of the 19th century – and this in England.

From “room tennis” to table tennis

As the name suggests, the sport basically derives from tennis and was initially only common among the better-off strata. Since one was looking for a way to play tennis in winter, this sport was moved indoors and so the “space tennis” was first created. Since this required a correspondingly large space, they looked for ways to develop a corresponding miniature form of this sport. So the kitchen or living room table was simply emptied, a rope was stretched over it and the then still used, round carved cork was played by means of a racket resembling today’s featherball bat. It is also rumoured that, if there were no appropriate rackets, the domestic frying pan was used. Table tennis or ping pong as it was initially called, was born.

Improvements followed quickly

In the following years, various improvements followed. From the material of the balls to the type and shape of the rackets to the table tennis table, the sport has been adapted and perfected. The first table tennis balls consisted of round carved corks, but were soon replaced by rubber balls. At the end of the 19th century, the balls were improved so that the material used was now made of celluloid – but the two ball halves were initially still assembled, which resulted in the ball spun uncontrollably when hitting the seam. It was quickly realized that the shape of the rackets was not suitable for the fast game and so it was shortened to the now known length and covered or glued with different coverings. These ranged from fur to leather to pimpled pads, which produced a higher bounce of the ball.

After the first rules of the game were published in 1875 by the engineer James Gibbs, the sport became more and more well known and could thus be regarded as an official sport at the latest with the founding of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) in 1926.

Since table tennis initially spread mainly in Europe, the nations located there, such as Romania, Hungary or the then Czechoslovakia were initially the leading countries, especially until the time of the Second World War. However, by further developing the racket coverings in Japan, with which sometimes unimaginable speeds and techniques were achieved, there was no way past the Asian states as a table tennis nation for a long time. In order for table tennis to be included even at the Olympic Games, some rules still had to be adapted.

In Germany, however, other sports have now outperformed table tennis. The number of members of the German Table Tennis Federation (DTB) has been falling sharply for a long time. In 2016, it still had about 560,000 members, a good 100,000 fewer than ten years earlier. The trend is also more negative, especially in the junior and girls’ sector. The popularity of the sport itself is still in a consistently good range. According to statistics from 2013 to 2017, well over 50 million Germans know the sport of table tennis, but are not interested in it. Only 2 – 3 million each follow the fastest ball sport in the world in parts or are very interested. However, the practice of the sport of table tennis, especially in association terms, seems more like a discontinued model.


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