While the unexpected shortcomings of the German national team will no doubt be splashed upon the back pages of this morning’s press, we would like to point you in the direction of something a little different. Indisputably a nation with an enviable prowess in professional sport, Germany is also host to some intriguing amateur crazes, few of which are unique as Berlin’s take on the noble sport of ping pong.
The sport is known as ‘Table Tennis’ to some, and ‘Ping Pong’ seemingly to those who don’t care a great deal for formality and properness. Berlin has adopted the sport very much in the latter sense, with an approach that places more importance on socialising than competing. There are hundreds of ping pong tables in Berlin, perhaps even thousands which range from outdoor concrete numbers, to ones in pong themed bars. The scene is popular enough that a site exists to map the location of each along with details and even photographs for those who are very particular about their ping pong set-up.
How has this simple sport, grown into a cult movement in Germany’s capital? Many consider the establishment of guerilla ping pong in the 80s as a crucial stage for the transformation from basic game into social event. These days in Berlin, it is considered standard practice of Tischtennispartykultur to play with a bottle of beer in one hand and the paddle in the other according to Dr. Pong founder Oliver Miller. Last year when Manchester’s Ping Pong Club held the second annual “Pongress”, one of the key guests was Ulli UeBachs, one of the originators of guerrilla ping pong.
Manchester Pongress 2011 Photo by Alec Dudson
The Pongress was a collaboration between ping pong clubs from around the world that like their sport mixed with music and alcohol and Helen Collett from the Manchester branch heard all manner of wacky tales of Ulli’s early exploits. Not content with transporting ping pong tables (split into two halves) around on bicycles, the guerrilla ping pong-ers were staunch in their belief that thirsty players would not be happy players. Their logistically un-nerving solution supposedly, was to cart around a mobile fridge (stocked with beer) and a car battery to power it. Quite how this was managed using bicycles alone is unknown, but of course these sort of unknowns are the stuff legends are made of.
Now I know you are probably thinking “Great, ping pong and beer, what’s all the fuss about?” but the Berliners were far from finished sculpting the noble sport of table tennis into their own raucous affair. One vs. one or two vs. two, table tennis is not the most inclusive of games when those not playing are merely spectators, waiting around for their turn. The solution mooted by Ulli and co. however, was to allow anything up to thirty or so people to start a game at the same time. Rundlauf is the essence of ping pong in Berlin, a swirl of suitably intoxicated players all taking a shot and then moving anti-clockwise around the table. Lose two lives and you are out; when just two players are left, a best of three decides the winner and then everyone is back round the table for the next round (ideally having been to the bar in the interim).
Rundlauf at Manchester Pongress 2011 Photo by Alec Dudson
Collett learned at the Pongress that Miller’s idea for the Dr. Pong bar arose from a conversation with Ulli, the U.S. born Berlin convert going on to establish his venue in the city’s Prenzlauer Berg district. Miller, a long standing advocate of Rundlauf and ping pong’s social power claims “It’s using a game to socialise rather than turning socialising into a game”. In this short video with fellow pong-oisseur Leo Pleschinger, Miller reveals another interesting facet to the re-appropriation of the sport, playing with the concept of tables.
Far from being content with a standard table tennis table, there have been many an attempt to push the boundaries and explore new possibilities for the game through design. Two outstanding examples thus far are the 3D table tennis tunnel showcased at the 2010 Berlin Pongress and Jon Wakeman’s 3-a-side table from the Manchester Mini-Pongress the following year. With the likes of interior designer Tobias Fraenzel and his door which converts into a table further evidence of the city’s infatuation with the sport, it is safe to say that while the focus of the city’s ping pong craze is its social aspect, the game itself is a lot more than a backdrop.
The 3-D Tunnel Table at the Berlin Pongress 2010 Photo courtesy of Helen Collett
Jon Wakeman’s 3-a-side Table at the Mini-Pongress 2011 Photo courtesy of Helen Collett
Should you be London based and somewhat inspired by this piece, chance would have it that you are in luck as Ping! are starting a month long initiative today which will see tables pop up around the city. I can’t guarantee that with his will come a Berlin-esque attitude towards mixing drink and play but we can only hope.
By Alec Dudson