Olympic flashback: The Mozart of table tennis

Sam Price
Sam Price

Following his retirement at the age of 50, we relive the 1992 Olympic Games when Jan-Ove Waldner – Sweden’s ‘Mozart of table tennis’ – became the only player outside of Asia to win gold. Words: Sam Price

China has been the dominant force in table tennis ever since the sport first appeared on the Olympic programme in 1988, winning an astonishing 24 of 28 gold medals and poised to add to that tally in Rio over the next fortnight. Of the other four golds, the Republic of Korea has won three, while just one has been claimed by a European athlete – Jan-Ove Waldner.

This year, the Swedish sharp-shooter – who earned the nickname the ‘Mozart of table tennis’ due to the artistry and variety of his game – played the final match of an incredible career that spanned four decades and reached its zenith in Barcelona 24 years ago.

The backdrop was a period in which Sweden had emerged as a major threat to China’s table tennis supremacy. Using a ‘shakehand’ grip of the racquet in contrast to the prevailing ‘penholder’ style of the age, an elite group of Swedish players pushed each other to new heights, and inflicted a seismic 5-0 defeat of China in the 1989 Team World Championship final in Dortmund, Germany. The undisputed star of the show was Waldner, who also claimed the individual world title and entered the Olympic Games three years later as a strong contender for gold.

In Barcelona, the ice-cool Swede enjoyed a near-flawless passage to the final, dropping just one game on the way to a showdown with European counterpart Jean-Philippe Gatien. And just like the opponents that went before him, the Frenchman couldn’t live with the speed, variety and dexterity exhibited by Waldner, who secured his place in table tennis history aged 27 as the first player to win the sport’s Grand Slam of individual World Championship, World Cup and Olympic titles.

Even as the Swedish team fragmented and bowed to the new wave of Chinese prodigies from the late 1990s onwards, Waldner continued to conjure up magical moments on the Olympic stage, winning a silver medal in Sydney in 2000 and pulling off memorable victories over Ma Lin and Timo Boll en route to a fourth-placed finish in Athens in 2004.

In a testament to the longevity of his career and the epic contests he played out against successive generations of Chinese superstars, Waldner became known as Lao Wa – meaning ‘Evergreen Tree’ in Mandarin – by the people of China, where he continues to be revered. In 2004, he opened Beijing’s first Swedish restaurant, and in 2013 became the only living foreigner to appear on a Chinese postage stamp.

A true pioneer and innovator, Waldner’s contribution to table tennis was like Mozart’s to music, and his moment of Olympic triumph will be forever celebrated.

The Olympic table tennis competition runs from Saturday, August 6 to Wednesday, August 17