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CHAIRMAN MAO GOT IT RIGHT!
“ Why you are a couch potato!” 
Donald Winze 2017

Mao Zedong wanted the Chinese people to live a healthier lifestyle and ordered more than a million concrete table tennis tables built and distributed throughout China. Table tennis is now the second most popular participant sport in the world and the national sport of China. This is not the ping-pong game of tapping the ball around in the basement but the intrepid Olympic sport that most Americans have never even seen, let alone taken the time to learn and play properly.

Unlike the general American populace who become sedentary and unhealthy with age, the lifetime table tennis athlete continues to compete, continues to succeed, and continues to be healthy and fit. Sadly the American athlete reaches an age where the traditional sports of youth are no longer feasible activities, or even worse, these sports have damaged the body beyond repair. Without the motivation of athletic competition, the result, more often than not, is declining health and fitness. Table tennis, the quintessential lifetime competitive sport, offers a ready solution to this problem.

As we age it is just not practical for most of us to compete in sports without making fools of ourselves or getting injured. Yes, those same activities of our younger days that earned us the medals, letter jackets, and pep rallies—while simultaneously pumping up our self-esteem—have eventually let us down big time.  In the past, as we bashed our opponents and achieved the winning score, we inadvertently were hooked on the natural endorphins pumping into our blood stream.  In adulthood those natural, physical highs attained through competition are almost impossible to replicate.  Reviving our heydays of glory and triumph is more complicated than just mind over muscle.
 
The painful signals from aging bodies can’t be ignored, so eventually these competitive activities are lost, and without alternatives, we become sedentary couch potatoes—the un-athlete. Even if we push ourselves to retain or recreate those warm and fuzzy kudos we once sacrificed so hard for, our bodies ultimately will demand a payback.  We are no longer able to shrug off those dents and dings as they manifest.  The bruise and cramp of yesterday is today’s chronic medical problem.  It's entirely possible that someday we will have to visit a physical therapist or worse, an orthopedic surgeon for joint replacement. Quite likely, we will be advised to "get another life" and stay away from those dangerous, competitive sports of our youth.

Further into age—as the body becomes even more delicate—the populace is inevitably left with just plain old walking.  Now, the American athlete has evolved 360 degrees since birth. Walking was essentially the first real exercise since progressing to homo erect-us from the crawling rug rats of infancy. It's almost impossible to hurt oneself walking other than maybe going to the mall and tripping over a stray gumball or cracking one’s skull on an un-mopped floor. The social obligations of showing up at 6 a.m. to meet the mall gang can be a great motivator to keep the joints moving, but it can never duplicate the competitive thrill of winning a game or running to first base after hitting the T-ball for the first time. Without competition, without the thrill of endorphins surging through the bloodstream, motivation can be difficult to find, and more often than not when intensity and drive are lacking, so is the quality of the exercise. Sadly, at this point there are plenty of has-beens and wannabes that cannot even get themselves motivated to get off the couch without the old thrill of competition.

At the apex of our athletic careers, our bodies were stress-free, calorie-burning machines performing on autopilot while simultaneously keeping weight gain to a minimum, or at least a manageable, level. Those days have now long passed. How do the aging American athletes stay fit in the face of arthritis and chronic pain?  All too often, the answer is, they don’t! Some of the formerly intrepid—now incapacitated—American athletes have to completely give up the fight, or continue living out their sports dreams vicariously through their children’s sports accomplishments, where the vicious cycle repeats itself.  Others will hang out at sports bars—cheering at the TV screen and suffer the Monday morning blues when their favorite sports team loses on the weekend. The frustrating process these aging American athletes have to go through—just to feel alive—needs resolution.

With today’s status quo, it is almost unavoidable that the destiny of the American athlete is to morph from a fierce competitive sports warrior to a mall walker or a zoned out health club member wearing an iPod, resembling a caged hamster going nowhere on a circular treadmill. So, if it is almost, but not 100% certain that we are to become victims of our own zealous need to beat somebody at something as an excuse for exercise, why not "think outside the box" and study what the rest of the world does for lifetime sports. We could even emulate what some of our own Senior Olympians do as competitors to stay fit and healthy. Many seniors compete year-round in table tennis tournaments along with other zealous competitors of all ages. The thrill of competition keeps them exercising, and their bodies thank them.

Why, you may ask, did Mao Zedong have it right about table tennis?  Table tennis is the ultimate lifetime competitive sport, with an amazing neutrality that makes it accessible to everyone. Irrespective of physical stature, age, gender, or athletic capability, table tennis can deliver fun and fitness to all participants. Furthermore, the sport is culturally diverse, economical, non-seasonal, and team and family oriented. If the thousands of healthy, active seniors competing in table tennis in the U.S. aren't proof enough of the merits of the sport—nor the Olympic status or a quick perusal of YouTube highlights—there are also important cultural reasons for learning about and embracing this wonderful sport.
 
Any savvy business person intending to travel overseas to the burgeoning Asian market should at least respect the sporting culture of their business partners, and this means understanding table tennis properly and familiarizing oneself with the lofty status of this sport in Asian and European societies. In that part of the world, table tennis players are national heroes of the highest order. Their Ma Long is our LeBron James. American sporting activities, most notably baseball and basketball, have bolstered the Asian sporting culture. Perhaps it is time we turned the tables and integrated a new activity into our national recreational ethos, one that can deliver a lifetime of fun, competition, and lasting health to the American athlete.
 
With such limitless potential, the puzzling question is why haven’t we embraced this sport? Americans are not familiar with the Olympic sport of table tennis because the vast majority of our American players never even make it out of their pre-qualifying Olympic events. This doesn't leave much of a human interest story for the TV networks, so coverage is lacking or nonexistent. Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci, the teen Olympic gymnasts of the 70's, captivated and inspired parents (and children) to investigate a new sport. Sadly, the sport of table tennis doesn’t have any photogenic phenoms on the horizon for Americans to emulate. So, except for Nixon's “Ping Pong Diplomacy” détente and Tom Hanks' corny movie rendition as Forrest Gump, the sport has never been on the national radar screen.
 
With the current state of affairs in America, it is not likely we will ever have practical training in a lifetime competitive sport like table tennis,
 because school athletic directors—many of them unregenerate ex-jocks unwilling to foster change—control the sporting culture at the ground level. They are too often more concerned about their schools’ winning records and a few special athletes moving onto the pro ranks than the future well being of the general tax paying populace.Once athletes are used up as cannon fodder, their aching kneecaps are not the schools’ problems anymore. The school administrators only give lip service to viable lifetime sports, teaching mainly short-term traditional sports rather than preparing students with lifelong, outlet sports for the future. Consequently, the “experts” we rely on to educate us—and as such to educate themselves about lifetime fitness—don't know any more about table tennis than you do.
 
The vast majority of youth pass through the educational gauntlet without learning a lick about competitive sports that sustain health and fitness during the aging process.  The Physical Education, Athletics, and Wellness programs need to be scrutinized. When academia fails us in society with poor test scores and results, it is called to task by the media. On the other hand, it seems that Physical Education educators are not held accountable for the product they produce. The depressing scores of unfit, unhappy aging ex-athletes are a serious indictment of the status quo. If our unaccountable scholars with Ph.D’s won’t institute positive changes that enable a lifetime of the fun, athletic competition we crave, they should at least prepare us for old age by teaching non-competitive activities like “mall walking” and “treadmill 101”.