A good table tennis player will put a different spin on just
about anything. But even Jan-Ove Waldner, Sweden's only gold
medalist from the 1992 Barcelona Games, seems to get tongue-tied
when explaining his country's rise to Ping-Pong preeminence. "We
don't often compromise our thoughts," Waldner says. "It is not
so easy to frighten a Swede."
This is an article from the July 24, 1996 issue
Frighten? What's so scary about table tennis? He's not careering
down an icy slope in that other sport Swedes handle with
Olympian aplomb. No, life and limb seem secure when your weapon
is a pimple-covered paddle, its projectile a sphere of
feather-light celluloid. So why the talk about fright?
Simply that table tennis is a game of nerves, compressed into a
nine-by-five-foot forum of arcs, angles and rapid-fire geometric
calculations. Your opponent whacks it right, you guessed left
and you're toast. Of course, you aren't really guessing--that
takes time. It's more like an intuitive reckoning of pace,
pattern and spin made in the bat of a paddle. "When the game is
19-all and your life changes with the edge of the table, it is
good to be cool," says Peter Karlsson, Waldner's Olympic
teammate and a former world doubles champion. "It's good to be
Before last year's comeuppance in Tianjin, where they were
whipped by the host Chinese, the Swedish men had captured three
straight team titles in the biennial world championships.
In 1989 and '91 Waldner and Jorgen Persson each took a turn
beating the other in the men's singles final. For nearly a
decade, a country of 8.7 million inhabitants regularly thrashed
a nation of 200 million table tennis players.
Polite, distant, inoffensive and prepared to parry your next
move before you know what it is, the Swedes practically bore
their opponents into submission. Yet the Swedish style defies
uniformity. It is an amalgam of techniques and training methods
taught as rote in various corners of the world. "Table tennis
was perfect for us," says Stellan Bengtsson, who in 1971 became
Sweden's first world singles champion. "We were starving for
knowledge and willing to vary our game so we are never taken by
The Swedes built a hybrid identity by inviting foreign coaches
to hold camps and even run their national team for months at a
time. In 1954 Poland's Alex Ehrlich, a three-time silver
medalist in the world championships, introduced military fitness
drills. His backward hops down long staircases were a boon to
better footwork. That same year Japan's Ichiro Ogimura smashed
his way to the world title after ignoring an edict from Japanese
team officials to employ a more defensive style. Years later,
with his ideas rejected at home, Ogimura took a four-month tour
as Swedish national coach, for which he earned four dollars a
day. He began workouts with gymnastics exercises and six-mile
runs, then he insisted his players whack 300 crosscourt
backhands without missing. After a pulse check, he called for
500 topspin forehands.
"His words still ring in my mind," says Bengtsson. "We wouldn't
be where we are today if he hadn't totally changed our game." It
was a perfect match. The Swedes gave Ogimura a forum. He gave
them a chance to adapt certain parts of the Asian game.
As the Swedes shot up in the world rankings, the players
hungered to create new techniques or imitate other players'
innovations. If a German player changed the face of his paddle,
Swedes soon took out the glue and fiddled with theirs. In time
the diversity of the Swedes' shotmaking made the players
impossible to scout. Press 1 for a Japanese looping forehand, 2
for a Chinese backspin backhand, 3 for a Hungarian short block.
As many Swedish players still do today, Bengtsson dropped out of
school and traveled abroad to learn the game. He won the world
title at 18, returned home to Falkenberg and was feted from a
pedestal in the city square by gawking Swedish teenagers as
though he were a pop idol. Today he coaches the local club there
and regularly strolls the square unbothered. "It was packed," he
says, pointing to the spot where he stood 25 years ago. "Six or
seven thousand people in a town that has maybe 10,000. That was
before Bjorn Borg, before Ingemar Stenmark. It was fantastic but
rough. Everything I did was judged by that. People expected so
much. Today if you don't make a sensation, they ignore you."
Waldner, who opens his bid to repeat as Olympic singles gold
medalist tomorrow night at the Georgia World Congress Center, is
a sensation. With hypnotic command of the game, he has become
the sport's mad genius, living for shots that skim the table's
edge. "No one can compare what he can do with the ball," says
Bengtsson. "He's like Pele, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky. It's
like he has a prior understanding of what will happen. But
The Swedes have a word for Waldner's on-court anticipation:
bollsinne, a sixth sense for the way the ball bounces. Waldner
had it when he was six and walked into the Sporvagan club in
Stockholm with his eight-year-old brother, Kjell-Ake. Jan-Ove
stood head-high to the table and took windmill swings at balls
he barely saw. He learned then to play over his head. "They only
saw the paddle," Jan-Ove recalls. "I liked the fact that they
couldn't see me."
Waldner played his first Swedish League match at 11. Three years
later he was mimicking the strokes of the world's elite players,
priming to beat them at their own game. At 16 he took first
prize in the German Grand Prix and won a Porsche he is still
unlicensed to drive. Now 30 and a decade removed from failing
his "driving theory" test by one point, he has staunchly refused
to take a retest. It's a crankiness carried over from his days
as a pouting schoolboy. When visiting Turkish students outscored
him on Swedish language tests, Waldner left the ninth grade and
never went back. Why bother? He had already played in China
three times and would soon have his face emblazoned on a postage
stamp. Who needed classrooms? "People wrote about me in the
papers, so teachers left me alone," Waldner says. "I was quite
shy in school. I couldn't compete so well there, so I left."
It was always a question of competition for Waldner. "When he
sees no chance to win the game--or lose the game--his motivation
collapses," says Glenn Osth, the Swedish national coach from
1987 to '90. "If we play miniature golf and he makes 8 on the
1st hole, he doesn't play the 2nd. Why does he lose to weaker
opponents? There is no passion unless he lets them in the match.
He wants the thrill of 19-all. He craves to win, and he needs
the element of risk like a drug."
When he can't feed his addiction at the table, Waldner opts for
bars, nightclubs and horse tracks, wagering liberally and often
courting disaster. He sports an inch-long scar on his left cheek
from a near-fatal barroom scrap in Hong Kong eight years ago.
"It could have been his life," says Swedish national coach Soren
Ahlen. "I'm concerned how he fills his desires when there is no
Waldner will lay wager on trivialities. He once earned a free
lunch by guessing which of two flies would abdicate a cafe table
first. He co-owns a horse named Peach Valley with fellow Swedish
sports heroes Tomas Brolin, a forward for the AC Parma soccer
team, and Mats Sundin of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs. A
bachelor, Waldner is a notorious womanizer, and Swedish dailies
have exhausted their newsprint trying to catalog his liaisons.
Yet he estimates his lengthiest relationship at three weeks and
blames his schedule--250 days a year on the road--for the lack
of a steady girlfriend rather than the addictive risk inherent
with new flirtation.
Waldner's annual income hovers at 2 million crowns ($300,000),
but he estimates that only 10 other Swedish players--including
three women--can afford to live off the sport's bounties alone.
Only Waldner, Persson and former Swedish national team member
Mikael Appelgren have contracts with Donic, a German-based
equipment company; as a result, the three had paid a skimpier
15% artists' tax for foreign income, until this year, when that
rate was raised to meet the going 50% rate for domestic income.
Six of this year's seven-member Swedish Olympic team left school
by 16 to become full-time players. "If you play table tennis,
you have to suffer your youth," says Bengtsson. "You need the
time to commit the shots to instinct."
Ahlen frets that the once-predictable Chinese have become
uncompromising innovators. At the '95 world championships the
Swedes were awakened by 3 a.m. phone calls, and power failures
blacked out the arena during two Swedish practice sessions.
When he first visited China, Waldner became immersed in Chinese
service technique and made it his trademark: If a foe's
concentration wasn't absorbed by his meter-high toss, Waldner
learned to hold his service hand limp as a wet mop, making a
mystery of both contact point and degree of spin. "This weapon
even China cannot fight," Ahlen says. "Mention one player and
Waldner can play exactly like him in practice. His strokes are a
combination of the best from other players. But you cannot
compare his serve to anything. He hits with topspin, backspin,
side spin or no spin and always into the corner you just looked
away from. You want to play him?"
One day last August, Jean-Michel Saive did. The former world No.
1 had made the trek from his native Belgium to glean from the
Swedes as Bengtsson once did from the Chinese. Twenty Swedish
crowns (about three dollars) sat atop a bench nearby, but the
bounty's size was trivial. As always for Waldner, the joy of the
kill was in the hunt, and his lead slipped from 19-14 to game
point at 20-19. With a spin doctor's chicanery, he curled a
short ball to Saive's backhand. Saive eyed an opening and
whacked a crosscourt dart to Waldner's backhand. Veering far to
his left, Waldner flicked a volley that escaped Saive's paddle
by the width of the ball.
"Naaaaaah!" shouted Saive, shaking his head. "When he's good, he
reads your mind. When he's really good, he reads the ball's
mind. It's impressive."
Impressive? It's frightening.