Rio Just Lost Its Mind Over Ping Pong. Yes, Ping Pong
The crowd packed into Rio Centro Pavilion 3 was small by Olympic standards, just 3,000 or so. But it roared like the audience at a World Cup match, chanting two syllables over and over.
Hu-GO! Hu-GO! Hu-GO!
The joyous sound reverberated through the low-ceilinged hall with every point Hugo Calderano notched against Peng Tang, growing more raucous as people lost their gourds for table tennis.
Yes, table tennis.
Go ahead, laugh. But Sunday evening’s match, in which Calderano, ranked 54th in the world, upset No. 15 Peng, was a delirious, emotionally draining 60 minutes. And it was the most fun I’ve had at the Games so far. The 20-year-old Calderano was born in Rio, and the peals started from the first point, when his aggressive, drooping front hand flew past Tang’s paddle.
Olympic table tennis is terrific fun to watch in person, because there are no bad seats and the game is familiar enough for everyone to follow along. Every point has the potential to become an intense emotional journey, especially in a close match. Boisterous fans packed the stands: A beach bro in a tank top, two teenage girls tugging the corners of a Brazilian flag, a family in front of me, squeezing in again and again for selfies with Calderano a tiny figure in the background.
Calderano lost the first game 8-11, and started the second with two badly missed serves, the second failing to even hit the table. It appeared he might be outclassed. But the crowd never lost faith.
The Brazilian seemed to draw strength from their cheers. The fervor grew as he mounted a stirring comeback. The crowd, which had done an admirable job keeping quiet before each serve, lost it. By game point, fans roared through Tang’s service and Calderano’s winning return. He took the second game 14 to 12.
It continued this way through the match, the two athletes trading wins. Calderano’s game possesses endearing eccentricities. He tends to toss the ball quite high before each service, easily six feet above his head. And he crouches low when opponents serve, leaving just his eyes and nose peeking peeking above the table. It makes him look a bit like Kilroy.
He also looks like a genuinely nice guy, like he’d enjoy playing Mario Kart with you. He wears a digital watch while playing. Although he won the Pan American championship last year, few people I spoke with knew of him before the Olympics. He’s become a breakout star, his name trending on Twitter, where people profess crushes.
The most fascinating thing about his performance in Rio may be the deafening sound accompanying it. You have to wonder if it’s helping him. “He’s playing totally insane,” says Timothy Wang of the US table tennis squad. He saw Calderano upset Swedish veteran Par Gerell, currently ranked 32nd, earlier in the day and is sure the home court advantage is real. “No other tournament is like this,” he says. “It sounded like a soccer match.”
The crowd cycled through several cheers. A straightforward “Hu-GO! Hu-GO!” gave way to a “Hugo-Hugo (clap-clap-clap). Hugo-Hugo (clap-clap-clap).” Toward the end, as Calderano pulled away, the crowd settled on a droning “Huuuu-goooo! Huuuu-goooo!” By the third game, everyone was unhinged. I was grinning, exchanging “Can you believe this?” glances with strangers who don’t speak English and jotting things like “I think I’m gonna faint” in my notebook.
After he won that match, taking four of six games, I saw a group hugging and cheering. It was Calderano’s family, ebullient. I asked his mother, Elisa, if she thought her son had anticipated the reaction of the crowd. “I think he was counting on it,” she said. “He was mentally prepared.”
The family unfurled a #GoHugo banner and insisted that I snap a picture. They didn’t want it for themselves; they simply wanted to pose. His family asked if she’d see me at today’s match against Jun Mizutan of Japan, the No. 6 player in the world.
Of course, I replied. How could I miss it?