One of my favorite niche Olympic sports to watch is table tennis, or ping pong as you likely know it colloquially. Who hasn't picked up a paddle at least once in their lifetime and played a game? I know my college years were filled with time at the table (maybe too much, although I was quite the acrobatic defensive specialist), but it's fascinating to see the absolute best in the world take it on. Today as our Olympic Q&A series continues with the NBC broadcasters of the London Games, we chat with table tennis Sean O'Neill about the sport at its highest level.
Q: What would you say to a casual viewer who may play table tennis recreationally about how the sport is played at the highest level?
A: At the highest level, table tennis is as demanding and competitive as any Olympic sport. The beautiful thing about table tennis is it doesn’t discriminate based on size, height, or strength. Everyone can play and enjoy the sport whether you are 7 or 70 plus! Here is a secret tip of the pros, move your feet before you move your hands!
Q: What are the biggest challenges in preparing for calling an Olympic sport and during the event itself?
A: The biggest challenges in preparing to call table tennis is compiling all the in-depth player profiles. The NBC Research team does a superb job on all the favorites, but in the early rounds there are a number of lower ranked players that we must know just as well. The Table Tennis statistician for The Games is Larry Bavly. He is a very knowledgeable tournament player and the two of us discuss potential match-ups and what to look for in upcoming matches.
Q: How is the Olympic environment different versus other events you've worked? How are you able to communicate that environment to an audience watching on another continent?
A: The Olympic environment is much more organized than other venues I’ve worked. The on-site media team, the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has put together, is world class. They are able to answer all our questions regarding last minute court assignments, posting timely quotes from the mixed zone and providing additional stats. As for communicating the vibe of the venue…. we let the pictures and sound do the work. We have 8 HD cameras on the feature court and a very sport knowledgeable group of camera persons on the floor.
Q: What's the most memorable aspect of being a part of the Olympic broadcast?
A: The most memorable aspect of being part of the Olympic broadcast is working with an NBC Olympic team that is as passionate and dedicated to sports as I am about table tennis. Each Games has its own flavor and creates its own unique set of memories. I am forever thankful to have gotten the opportunity to work with so many great people and to help share my sport with the American audience.
Q: How much of the Olympics are you able to take in as a fan? What else will you try and take part in outside the booth in London?
A: I make a strong effort to watch all my friends that are competing and coaching at the Games. I especially keep tabs on Judo, Archery, Badminton, Volleyball, Fencing, Tae Kwon Do, and Shooting. I am constantly taking notes from the color analysts as to how to improve my calls of table tennis.
Q: How do the Games in London compare to Sydney and Beijing Olympic Games?
A: Being a fan of table tennis, you can’t beat the Games in Beijing for sheer excitement. London has truly become the Social Media Games and the ability for athletes to share their words and images is amazing. Facebook and Twitter have helped allow one to really feel like you are part of the event.
Q: What aspects of table tennis make it an exciting television sport?
A: The shorter 11 point games create more tension and excitement than games to 21 which were the norm when I competed in Seoul and Barcelona. Table Tennis also went to a larger ball (40mm) to increase the rally length and reduce the speed a bit. The players are ultimately the reason people love watching. There are no other Olympic sports with the variety of styles from player to player.