If you’ve never seen pingpong (yes, you’re allowed to call it that) here are a few things you should know while watching it at the Olympics:
1. The players are athletic. They move from close-in shots at the net to deep baseline returns in the blink of an eye.
2. The sites of competition are golfers-on-the-putting-green quiet while shots are made. Everyone knows to whisper. Cellphones are frowned upon.
3. The things the players exclaim won’t make any sense to your American ears.
American Ariel Hsing’s reaction to an important point during the North American Olympic trials?
After losing a point that just nicked the table?
She prepares to serve with a quick dribble of the ball on the table, then starts the point.
The pace quickens as players look for a winner.
“Ping … pong. Ping-pong-ping.”
The ball hits the table, falls to the floor and rolls toward a barrier. Polite applause.
Players tiptoe over to a towel stand for a break. They wipe their clammy hands on the table at other times.
A barely audible “c’mon” from Hsing.
“Saa!” followed by a Tiger Woods-style fist pump.
Match point. A win. The Olympics are here. The pent-up emotions come from a 16-year-old who has been playing for more than half her life.
On a football field or in a baseball dugout, there’s plenty of chatter and trash talk. With 40,000 fans, no one hears what players say.
But playing pingpong in front of a few hundred people, everyone hears.
The screeches and yells in an intense, 15-return point contrast with the rest of the polite matches, which often include players apologizing to each other for shots that glance off the net or spin off the table.
“Chooooo!” from Canadian Olympian Andre Ho.
The funny thing is, these words are nonsense. 2011 national champion Peter Li says anyone yelling “sa” or “cho” while walking down the street in Beijing would get a funny look. But if you don’t yell those words in a table tennis match, that’s when people look at you funny.
“Everyone does it,” Hsing says. “It’s not like U.S. players are weird or anything.”
“When I was younger, I just jumped on the bandwagon,” says Timothy Wang, 20, the lone American male to qualify for London. “It was, ‘Hey, let me do it, too.’”
Some see value in letting out a roar.
Hinse says every close shot makes a player gasp a bit, so by the end of a long rally, which might include a dozen shots and plenty of back-and-forth on the court, there is little air in your lungs. Little air means little power, just when power is needed to “kill the ball.”
Canadian team director Tony Kiesenhofer says the screams are a great way to relieve pent-up anxiety and suck in fresh air.
Kiesenhofer’s charge, Ho -- tiny at 5-6 -- lets out yells that a man twice his size could be proud of, usually with the flourish of a spin on his heel before bellowing a drawn-out “Cho!” that Chewbacca might appreciate.
Hsing’s mother, who used to play in China, says some of the words are abbreviated cousins of real Mandarin exclamations.
“She thinks ‘cho’ is short for ‘hao cho,’ which is like ‘nice shot’ in Chinese,” Hsing says.
Whatever the reason, it’s just part of the game.