Ever since table tennis appeared at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, crowds have been enthralled by the athletes' speed, skill and clarity of thought. Ahead of the sport’s eighth Olympic appearance in Rio, Sam Price celebrates five of the best players to have graced the Games
Standing at just 150cm, Deng Yaping was initially denied a spot on the Chinese team because of her small stature, but her subsequent growth as a player was remarkable. Retrospectively voted the Chinese female athlete of the century, Deng took the Olympic Games by storm, winning singles and doubles gold in 1992 and defending both titles in Atlanta four years later. The nine-time world champion retired at the age of 24 with nothing left to achieve in the sport, and went on to earn a PhD in Land Economy from the University of Cambridge.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Sweden – with a new interpretation of the ‘shakehand’ grip of the racquet – emerged as a considerable threat to Chinese dominance of the sport. The chief architect of this resistance was Jan-Ove Waldner, who was known as the ‘Mozart of table tennis’ for the incredible speed, control and variety of his play. Waldner appeared at the first five editions of the Games, and his dominant performance in Barcelona in 1992 is the only instance of a non-Asian winning an Olympic gold medal in table tennis.
The ultra-consistent Wang Hao must go down as one of the best players in Olympic history. In three consecutive editions of the Games he fought his way to the men’s singles final, but in each he came up short, having to settle for the silver medal. An expert proponent of the reverse penhold backhand, Wang did win team gold with China at his home Games in Beijing in 2008, and helped defend that title in London four years later.
A key component of China’s all-conquering women’s team in the 2000s, the left-handed Wang Nan was a devilishly awkward opponent in singles and an invaluable source of variety in the doubles game. A four-time Olympic gold medallist, her run to the final of the women’s singles in Beijing – where she lost out to compatriot Zhang Yining – nonetheless made her the most decorated table tennis Olympian of all time.
Nobody has successfully defended their Olympic title in the men’s singles, but reigning champion Zhang Jike looks well equipped to make history in Rio. Fittingly, the 26-year-old is named after legendary Brazilian footballer Zico, and as one of only four male table tennis players to complete the career Grand Slam, he seems just as talented as the South American icon. A two-winged attacker with great mental strength, the gold medal match could come down to a showdown between Zhang and his great rival Ma Long – with whom he will also be bidding for back-to-back gold medals in the team event.