Every four years, we watch. We marvel at badminton, wonder about the modern decathlon and proudly pause for synchronized swimming. With more than 300 gold medals awarded across 37 disciplines, the next two weeks of our lives should be impressively unproductive. To aid in your immersion, we introduce the first installment of “know your Olympic sport.” It’s part reminder that people actually get medals for this stuff (see: trampoline gymnastics) and part introduction to the science behind the sports.
As a tribute to the recently lit flame in Beijing, our first installment focuses on the pride of China: Table Tennis (a.k.a. Ping Pong). Inside you’ll find a 30-year old performance enhancer in its final days, a training method built for Forrest Gump and all (perhaps even more than) you'll ever need to know about Ping Pong balls.
A notorious performance enhancer used just hours before competition to get that extra zip on the ball. Sounds nasty. But, this glue isn’t sniffed, injected or swallowed; it’s the stuff that holds paddles together. Think, Elmer’s on 'roids. For 30 years, any player worth his pong would sit down before his match and crack open a bottle. But, once the gold is awarded in Beijing, the Speed Glue Era in table tennis is officially over.
Legend has it that a Yugoslavian player in the 70’s came across speed glue by accident. He arrived for a tournament and forgot his traditional glue. Pro paddles consist of wooden blades followed by an inner sponge material which is attached to an outer rubber. Unlike the paddles in your garage, pro players glue the sponge/rubber to the paddle themselves. With a bike shop nearby, the pong player bought some adhesive normally used to plug a hole in a tire. By the time he got through P-I-N-G in his first match, it was clear that something had changed.
The mystery of speed glue comes down to its effect on the inner sponge material. When applied between the wood and the sponge, the glue expands and softens the sponge putting the outer rubber in tension. The result is a longer contact on the paddle, providing more spin and more speed (though less control). The effect only lasts a few hours forcing players to perform the ritual just before battle. So just how prevalent is this corking of ping pong paddles?single page
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