Why would a table tennis player hand her paddle to the ref?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why would the US table tennis competitor, who just lost to a woman from Korea, hand her paddle to the official at the end of the match? Any ideas?


Dear Brian,

Do you remember the Deflategate controversy in football from a couple of years ago? The National Football League discovered (although this is still widely debated, especially in New England) that the New England Patriots and their quarterback Tom Brady had intentionally been playing with balls on offense that had less air in them that was allowed. In other words, they had broken the rules by modifying the equipment they were playing with. This story was novel for a bunch of reasons, many of them involving particular narratives within football that we don’t need to go back into, but one of them was that the NFL seemed to be punishing what, within football was seen as a minor infraction, with a major penalty. Well, in table tennis, illegal modifying your equipment is not seen as a minor issue. That’s probably why the table tennis Olympian you were watching handed her racket (they’re officially called racket not paddles) to the umpire after the game.

Based on a brief reading of the official International Table Tennis Federation’s Handbook for Match Officials, racket cheating is a major concern. Here are just a selection of the characteristics of a racket that the umpire is concerned with:

  • One side of the racket must be red, the other black.
  • The material covering the racket must not extend past the racket itself. This exact rule is left up to the official’s discretion, but the rulebook suggests that “as a guide, 2 mm would be an acceptable margin to most referees.”
  • During any of the many towel or water breaks during the match, players are supposed to leave their racket on the table and “must not remove them without the specific agreement of the umpire.

The rule that is most likely relevant to what you saw, however, is one that legislates how and when rackets are tested for illegal tampering by players.

“In major competitions rackets are tested for the presence of banned solvents, normally after the matches. For the quarter and semi-finals as well as for the finals, the players may be given the choice of a pre-match or post-match test, so that they can decide between not having the use of their racket between the test and the start of the match and the disqualification if a post-match test proves positive.”

My guess is that the American Olympian you saw handing her racket to the umpire after the match was over had opted for a post-match test and the umpire was going to facilitate that.

Another option, although I think it’s a less likely one, is that the player had damaged her primary racket and all of her backup ones. In that case, a the match umpire “must report to the referee, who will decide how a second replacement is to be provided.”

Amazing what you can learn from rulebooks!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Summer Olympics: All About Table Tennis

All About Table Tennis

We all know table tennis or ping pong. It’s that game we played with our grandparents in Florida or with our friends in their basement. Forrest Gump was good at it. It’s become a mild hipster/tech favorite. No! You do not know table tennis until you watch world class table tennis, like the table tennis in the Olympics. Casual ping pong is to Olympic table tennis as a school yard fight is to World War I.

How Does Table Tennis Work?

For as different as I just described Olympic table tennis being from recreational ping pong, I have to admit the rules are basically the same. There are a few interesting wrinkles though. First, the rule of hitting the ball across the table on a diagonal during serves (like the tennis rule about serving) is only present in doubles table tennis, not singles. In singles table tennis, the serve can go anywhere once it crosses the net. That’s sneaky! There have also been a bunch of equipment changes to slow down the game so that people can enjoy it more as a spectator sport. The ball was enlarged, the paddles restricted. Games are also played to 11 with who serves switching every two points instead of the casual standard of 21 and five.

Why do People Like Watching Table Tennis?

Well, tennis is fun to watch, isn’t it? So why wouldn’t you want to watch tennis as played by GIANTS?! That’s basically what table tennis is like. It’s surprisingly athletic, but instead of running around on the court, these athletes run around the court. Shots force an opponent to lunge from side to side and sometimes even run backward or forward or dive. The mixture of speed and control required to get the paddle into the right spot but not hit the ball too hard is amazing.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:


What are the different events?

There are singles and doubles events for men and women.

How Dangerous is Diving?

Table tennis is safe!

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Diving?

The simplicity of the events (singles/doubles) make this an easy event for gender equality. What’s more, the rules are set up such that there are exactly the same number of men and women competing. Nice job table tennis!


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Table Tennis is from Saturday, August 6 to Wednesday, August 17.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.