By Ty Nolan
(From Compete Magazine’s May 2014 issue)
Tennis isn’t only played on a court – table tennis, better known to many as ping pong, has always been popular around the world. Many Americans don’t know that during the Nixon presidency “ping pong diplomacy” helped open China to the United States, ushering in Nixon’s first visit there. There are nearly as many ping pong players in China as there are Americans.
Wolfgang Busch (“Wolf” to his friends) is an amazing man with a remarkable history. Originally from Germany, he has been involved in a wide-range of gay activist activities. For over a decade he’s been in the forefront of promoting table tennis as a venue for the LGBT community. I had the chance to ask Wolf about his experiences with “Pink Pong.”
C: Can you tell me how Pink Pong started?
W B: It all started in 2001 with my friend from Brazil, Paulo Freitas. One day we talked about our youth and learned that we both liked table tennis. I hadn’t played in over 20 years but we went to downtown Brooklyn and started playing once a week.
Before I knew it we had four-to-six players every week. Now we have almost 100 members and we are the only gay table tennis group in the United States. In 2014 we are celebrating our 12th anniversary.
In 2004 we talked about a name for the group and came up with Ping Pong NY. Because it wasn’t gay enough, in 2010 we changed it to Pink Pong NY and I created the Pink Pong Foundation website to provide a place where LGBT players could meet and network and where we could also fight homophobia through sports.
Since 2010 Pink Pong NY has enjoyed much table tennis success. One reason is our outrageous table tennis costume and another is the first table tennis song called “PINK PONG,” written and produced by Darryl Hell. We used the sound of the ping pong ball and the paddles as part of the beat. Additionally, recognition for my producing and directing LGBT historic art films has provided momentum to organize players worldwide and start a table tennis movement. Our goal is to produce this September the first annual international LGBT Table Tennis Tournament in New York City for all level players.
In 2010 we celebrated our first Pink Pong NY awards dinner to honor the “Most Improved Player of the Year” as well as members who donated time and money to show our appreciation. To further community inclusion we also honored our mascots, supporters of the players who hang out with us and watch us play.
Now I play for the love of playing the game and for physical therapy. Because of a back injury, I used to go to physical therapy prescribed by my doctor and many times would still leave with back pain. One day I left with back pain but went to play table tennis. After playing for two hours I was pain free and felt great the next day. Now when I have back pain I can’t wait to play table tennis – it always works.
C: What’s your greatest challenge in recruiting players?
WB: This is really a two-part question and has to do with our sexuality and legal status. North Americans, Europeans and Latin Americans are generally more comfortable being out. Asian countries like China, where being gay is illegal and families will dishonor their children when they find out one is gay, is much more difficult to deal with. Finding gay Chinese players was a huge challenge. It took three years to find them. One day I heard about a gay sauna in Queens with a ping pong table. I went there but nobody was playing. I went back on a Sunday and met Michael from China. He asked me to play with him and seeing my potential and interest in the game, we became friends very quickly.
The new challenge was getting them from playing at the gay sauna to playing at a table tennis club since the room at the sauna was very small and the actual table was on top of a billiard table – not an ideal place to play. It took me one year to get Michael and Leon to come out of the sauna and play at the club with me.
Now that I socialized with them outside the sauna, I found myself in an environment where saying the word “gay” in public made the Chinese players very uncomfortable. I felt like I was going back in time 40 years. I experienced very intense moments and it still scares the heck out of them when I say gay in public. It reminds me how lucky I am to have been able to empower myself from this guilt of family shame and rejection.
Homophobia is huge within the table tennis community overall because the sport is so dominated by Chinese players. The vibes are very strong at straight table tennis clubs when the subject comes up. Because in China gay is illegal, it still affects Chinese living in the U.S. Many are married with children and have to live a double live. It is deeply rooted and will take years to see a little change. Sometimes they open up to me when we have conversations about gay life and sports. I can see how their eyes light up. Many of them have nobody who talks to them like I do and they tell me that they really appreciate it.
C: Is there a “typical” table tennis player?
WB: There is no out professional table tennis player and there is no “typical” anything because there is no recorded history. Education and communication are important to reach more players so we can learn more about each other. We want to continue the development and growth of table tennis in the U.S. and worldwide so we can leave behind a table tennis legacy for future generations.
Most of our players are over 40 and we share the same story. We all played as teenagers then stopped playing as adults. Now older, we realize we need some exercise in our lives again. There is nothing better than picking up table tennis. They call it food for the brain because of the mental/physical intense coordination. And the reflexes developed by playing are helpful in everyday life.
C: Is there something else you’d like to share with our readers about your group and the sport of table tennis?
WB: We would like to encourage everybody to play table tennis, especially the younger members from our community to bridge the generation gap. Table tennis is for people of all ages at all levels of play. It is great for body, mind and soul – once bitten by the table tennis bug, there is no turning back. Pink Pong NY is a social group and table tennis players coming to New York to visit or on business now have a gay place to play.
To listen to the “PINK PONG” song, visit the organization’s website at PinkPongFoundation.org and follow the group on Facebook.
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