We speak to Ping Pong expert, Adrian Leigh about the recent resurgence in the popularity of table tennis, how it came about, and his own Pongathon project.
Tell us a little about yourself and your Pongathon project.
Ex junior county player, turned music promoter. I gave up playing table tennis at 16 when I was introduced to tennis. As a young man discovering the world, tennis offered me an outlet to play another racquet sport, meet girls and make new friends - something male-dominated table tennis, played in draughty church halls, scout huts and youth clubs could not compete with! I subsequently went on to become a county ranked tennis player before following my passion for travel and music.
A stint in the merchant navy to see the world preceded what was to become a twenty-year career in the music industry as a club promoter, band manager, publicist and booker. In 2010 I rediscovered my passion for ping pong when someone wheeled a table into my studio bar and suddenly, as if a light had been switched on in my head the word 'Pongathon' appeared and a new vision for the game emerged.
I wanted Pongathon to be a place where people could laugh, dance, learn how to play, socialize with their friends, work colleagues or fellow students! Importantly, I wanted Pongathon to reach out and get the ping pong party started!
At the heart of my new enterprise was the firmly held belief that ping pong energises people's innate instinct to laugh, have fun, be active and is totally inclusive, meaning everyone regardless of skill or gender can take part and enjoy the game from the very first ball hit!
Pongathon have hosted a number of international events as well as hosting city residencies, fund-raisers and exhibitions to name a few. We continue to push the boundaries of innovative social ping pong engagement to a wider audience and keenly follow other social and urban ping pong collectives across Europe and the rest of the world helping to spread the gospel of ping pong!
In recent years Ping Pong seems to have made a transition from a mainstream sport to take up a place in youth counterculture. How do you think that came about?
We drew inspiration from the social and urban ping pong scene in Berlin where outdoor tables had been placed in really cool parts of the city for people to play and hang out. Local artists had transformed the tables into recreational canvasses, each location had become a community hub for all ages and genders to either learn or improve their game and in some instances develop tournaments and leagues. Interestingly it seemed the game had developed huge popularity within the new tech industries, particularly start-ups and their workspaces.
We also drew inspiration from Spin in New York, an underground warehouse where New Yorkers could drop-in and play, listen to music, grab a pizza and meet other social players from their city. It had quickly acquired cult status and the huge rise in the popularity of the game had seemingly attracted designers, videographers and artists to express themselves in the ‘Spin’ factor.
The rebirth of the sport from 'traditional table tennis' to 'urban cool ping pong' was beginning for a new generation of socially active players who, now able to access ping pong tables for the first time in over 50 years, have fallen in love with the game. Even Sport England followed suit by investing millions of pounds into their ‘Ping!’ project, placing hundreds of tables across 20 cities in the UK.
In 2013 we created Ping Pong Fight Club, an inter-company ping pong tournament for tech start-ups. The event, held at Village Underground in Shoreditch attracted 16 companies, 500 people and widespread media attention, even getting a feature in NY Times.
Bars and venues have started ditching their pool tables in favour of ping pong tables, participation has also increased dramatically across campuses and workplaces with support from Table Tennis England. And you now have super-sized venues like Bounce in Holborn and Shoreditch, which are a mecca to thousands of players each week.". A new social and urban ping pong movement is spreading across Europe with Pongathon very much at the centre of the ping pong revolution. Watch this space!
How do you think Ping Pong compares to other sports that are associated with subcultures, such as surfing skateboarding and snowboarding?
It’s still quite early days but we can see where ping pong is forging its identity within a subcultural context. Although the ping pong experience and participation environment is different to that of snowboarding and surfing, that exist in more natural outdoor landscapes. Ping pong draws closer comparison to skateboarding, in as much as you carry your ‘weapon’ to more urban environments to exhibit your prowess and test out new tricks and skills. Skateboarders congregate in skate parks, ‘Ping Pong Pugilists’ congregate in parks, canalside lots, galleries and cityscape locations. They wear loose fitting but easy to move in apparel, always have music in the backgrounds and play with their heart on their sleeves! It's also easy to play with people you don't know, a bit like the basketball pick-up games you see in the US, which have never really taken off here in the UK.
The wonderful thing about ping pong is its inclusive barrier breaking spirit, the ability to play and compete with people from all walks of life, abilities and backgrounds. The creative and lifestyle expression of urban ping pong from around the world is beautifully represented in the website: popp.world
Do you think Table Tennis has an affinity with any particular British subculture?
Good question! I’d say a bit of Mod and definitely a bit of Britpop. Interestingly with our wonderful exploits on the world stage recently, I think a huge amount of national sporting pride has encouraged a lot of people to take up social ping pong as it breaks up the mundanity of everyday life…a nice kind of lyrical (if not slightly tenuous) symmetry with those subcultures?
What inspires you when you are not playing Ping Pong?
Music, Music and more Music! Extreme human endeavours of any kind from long distance swimming, desert running, exploration, acts of kindness, nature, my father (95 and fit as a fiddle!)
What has been your favourite reaction from a Pongathon participant?
“I met my future wife at a Pongathon event”
What is next for you and Pongathon?
Ping Pong Fight Club 2016, Snowbombing Festival in April 2017, A European Ping Pong Festival Summer 2017 and a lot of parties in between! Planning for the Christmas party season is starting, and we're excited about making companies' Christmas parties memorable thanks to a little ping pong magic.
Fred Perry was World Table Tennis Champion in 1929, aged 18, before pursuing his illustrious career in lawn tennis, which included his three Wimbledon titles, and many other Grand Slam victories.