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Culture

Jewish Ping-Pong Diplomacy Takes Beijing

On these hot August days and nights, Beijingers often take to the parks, squares and sidewalks to socialize, dance and compete in their own “Olympic Village.” For many, the only sport worth sweating for is table tennis, known here as ”pingpang.” Amid the buzzing cicadas and jingle of bike bells, the smack of paddles hitting plastic hangs in the air, interspersed with cheers and groans.

But not everyone playing in Beijing is Chinese.

When David Zalcberg of Australia approaches the tennis table on Tuesday, he will face more than just Vietnam’s Kien Quoc Doan in the men’s table tennis singles preliminaries.

Zalcberg, 27, has suffered injuries and accidents in his 15-year career, including the 1997 Maccabiah Games disaster, when four Australians died and hundreds were injured in a footbridge collapse. And then there was the back injury and in January 2007 a bicycle crash that broke his arm in two places.

“The doctors said I would never play again,” he said as he was set to depart for Beijing, where he is competing in the singles and doubles table tennis competitions.

Speaking of doctors, Zalcberg is in his final year of medical school, where he does eight-hour rounds in his hometown of Melbourne when he isn’t training for the Olympics.

In Athens four years ago, Zalcberg placed 17th in the doubles competition, and he won a gold medal in Oceania’s 2004 games. He rose to 37th place in the world at the 2004 World Teams Championships, and in 2007 he ranked as Australia’s fourth best male table tennis player.

Zalcberg is a graduate of Mount Scopus Memorial College, the first co-educational Jewish day school in Melbourne, and was named Maccabi Australia’s 2007 sportsman of the year.

Given the prominence and history of table tennis in China, Zalcberg gets a special thrill out of playing the national sport here.

According to the LA Times:

The game is taken very seriously in China. National champions such as Wang Hao and Wang Liqin command as much celebrity as basketball’s Yao Ming. President Hu Jintao told reporters this month that if he could be an Olympic athlete he would surely pick table tennis as his sport.

Since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988, the Chinese have taken home 16 of the 20 gold medals.

Not only do the Chinese rule at international meets, they are often competing against former countrymen. All four U.S. players here for the Beijing Games were born in China, including one who won a silver medal previously – for China.

Click here to watch Zalcberg play Chinese table-tennis players in the parks of Beijing and discuss the road to the 2008 Olympics.

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