Ping-Pong at the Rotunda


By Alexander Remington, Culture Writer, MPP ‘13

At any given time when you walk through the Taubman Rotunda, you’re liable to find two students playing… well, I grew up calling it “ping pong.” Maybe I shouldn’t have. “Table tennis is the serious name,” says Malcolm Sparrow, a Kennedy professor on sabbatical who is also a former Detective Chief Inspector in the Kent Constabulary. An Englishman with a dry wit and deep passion for the game, Sparrow purchased the table and continues to maintain it, supplying fresh balls and overseeing any necessary repairs. “I was aware of a lack of recreational opportunities at the school for students,” he told me. “I have been MPP Chair several times, and am very aware of the stressful nature of the place. You’ve got to have some way of alleviating that.”

Table tennis began to emerge in its present form in Britain in the 1880s, an indoor version of the outdoor game of lawn tennis. Around the turn of the 20th century, the British arm of Parker Brothers registered “Ping Pong” as a trademark, so “table  tennis” was technically the generic name, much as the trademarked name “Frisbee” sometimes conflicts with the generic term “disc.” Many table tennis enthusiasts find that the name “ping pong” makes it sound more juvenile. “Ping pong I like to say backwards,” Sparrow said. “Gnop gnip. It’s onomatopoeic – it describes the sound of the game.”

Malcolm Sparrow grew up on a farm in England in the 1960’s, playing on a table his father built out of scrap wood. “This was a religion,” he told me. “We literally used to spend every spare hour playing table tennis.” And he got very good. “I played number one for Trinity College Cambridge,” he said. “I have not played competitively in the States. Nor have I lost to an American.”

Sparrow added, “I’ve played quite a lot of Americans, yes.”

The table in Taubman is a Butterfly Nippon Rollaway, suitable for tournament play – quite a technological improvement from the homemade table he grew up on. Sparrow also owns two more regulation tables of his own. “I couldn’t live without having a table fairly close by,” he told me.

Students are expected to fold the table up and roll it away after use, but that doesn’t always happen. “It’s bad for us,” building services coordinator Scott McDonald told me. “It’s always out, the net’s half down, the paddles are everywhere.” Student affairs director Melissa Wojciechowski put it more diplomatically: “It is governed by the masses.”

One of his Sparrow’s goals in installing the table was to reach out to Americans who might have been raised as I was, knowing about “ping pong” but not the competitive sport of table tennis. “I love the game. I’ve played it all my life. I think Americans don’t appreciate it properly,” he told me. “It’s the same as I’d say about soccer – just look, the rest of the world is playing this game. You should try it.”

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