RIO DE JANEIRO — The relics were arranged in a sphinxlike configuration, as in some type of ancient burial ground. Massimo Costantini, the coach of the United States table tennis team, called the formation “a sort of homage to the fallen.”
They appeared on the first day of the Olympics, in a far corner of the table tennis pavilion: 18 white balls, all of them crumpled or cracked, arranged ceremoniously in the center of a quartet of water bottles. It was a fitting symbol of the frustration that has festered at the tables this week at the Rio Games, where the table tennis balls are giving players fits.
“They do not bounce true, the players said. Their flight paths are unpredictable. And they frequently break.”
“I think this ball is very bad,” Li Ping of Qatar said after losing a match. The player who beat him, Dimitrij Ovtcharov of Germany, fumed that the official competition ball “makes it almost impossible to compete.”
Table tennis balls are capricious little things. Infinitesimal variations in size and imperceptible deviations in construction can have considerable ramifications for how they spin, fly and bounce. Casual players — people in suburban garages or fraternity houses — tend not to notice such details. But professionals obsess over them.
The balls at the Olympics, then, are not the ones you find, cobwebbed, under the basement couch. They are not even the same balls used at the last Summer