None of us are getting any younger. Indeed, most of us are going to get a lot older than any previous generation ever has. Our ageing population is the focus of Ping Pong, that and table tennis and joie de vivre.
The format of this documentary is simple. The film (directed by Hugh Hartford and produced by his brother Anson) follows eight players as they prepare for and then attend the table tennis world championships in Inner Mongolia. What makes the film different from any other sporting documentary is the age of the players – they are all above the age of 80. The players include two Brits, Les Darcy 89 and Terry Donlon 81, Ursula Bihl in Germany aged 89 and there’s an old dear in Australia who is 100 and still patting the ball over the net.
Ping pong isn’t just a game for these people or even a good method of keeping fit and active, it’s a way of engaging with life. Ursula says that she would like to die at the table. Ping pong seems to act as a life support machine for most of these old people. Even more remarkable than seeing the 100 year old Dorothy DeLow in action is hearing the story of Inge Hermann from Germany.
After her husband died 15 years ago Mrs Hermann stopped eating, and then suffered a series of strokes and ended up in the dementia ward of a nursing home. This sad decline was halted by Ping Pong-o-therapy and now she is fully recovered and playing in the World Championships. All of the stories of the players and their fight against the odds are interesting and inspirational. Some of them are real characters too.
Les Darcy from Stockport has been a sports fanatic all his life and still hits the gym to lift weights with the youngsters (the 50-year-olds). The body beautiful isn’t the only thing that interests Les however, he is forever quoting poetry too. Kipling’s If, Walter D Wintle’s famous positive-thinking ditty The Man Who Thinks He Can. More surprisingly he quotes the philosophical prose poem Like Gods by American poet John Koethe, who asks “Instead of this entanglement of self with self, why can’t I just relax into my place inside the natural order, be a thing within the solid scheme of things, a Dane in Denmark?”
Finally after being introduced to this group of singular oldsters, the documentary reaches the championships in Inner Mongolia. Here we see their attitudes to competing, to winning and to losing. There is no doubt that even in your eighties or nineties, losing a game is still a sad business. It is during the heightened emotions of the competition that the film turns its attention to the mysteries of mortality. Of course nobody knows where we’re going, but these are lives more fully illuminated by death’s finality.
Although only 80 minutes long, Ping Pong manages to introduce us to a host of fascinating characters – essential for any good documentary. And like the best documentaries it takes an ordinary activity and uses it to give us insights into the human condition. Sometimes funny, sometimes melancholy, Ping Pong gives us hope that old age might not be the inevitable decline that many of us fear.