China has won 24 of the 28 table tennis gold medals on offer since the sport’s Olympic debut in 1988. Can anyone stop the country’s dominance in Rio? Gruffudd Owen finds out
As well as providing thrilling entertainment for millions, the Summer Olympic Games – whose 28th edition is under way in Rio – serve as possibly the most powerful and inspiring example of the transcendental nature of sport.
Beyond a mere outlet for elite athletes to showcase their immense physical and mental abilities through fierce competition, the Games show how sport can unite the world and bring disparate cultures together.
Of course, this is no novel concept. Sport as a social phenomenon with a meaning that runs deeper than the mere presence of 22 players on a field, or two boxers in a ring, is evident across the world. It can help shape how we view ourselves, and how others identify us.
Football was born in England during the 19th century, and remains a national obsession, permeating other cultural channels such as fashion and music. Americans speak of their pride for their own game of football, with even amateur college games attracting crowds in their hundreds of thousands. So too can we point to the ancient martial art tradition in Japan, where sumo, judo and karate remain striking expressions of the national psyche.
China’s relationship with table tennis is no different. Championed as the national sport of the fledgling People’s Republic of China in the 1950s by Chairman Mao Zedong, the leader saw potential dominance in the game as a means of strengthening the country’s profile abroad.
'Ping pong diplomacy' and national pride
Mao’s dream was realised, and with the world beginning to sit up and take notice of this emerging global power, table tennis played a very real part in the development of modern China.
As the communist state entered its third decade of existence in the 1970s, its ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ with the USA saw the American table tennis team invited to the country in 1971, precipitating a landmark visit from US President Richard Nixon the following year, the first to the country by an American leader.
That this bat-and-ball game led to a détente in Sino-American relations reveals its vital role in Chinese culture. Ever since Mao called for his country to become the leading force in the sport more than 60 years ago, China’s grip on the table tennis world has been unbreakable.
And it is at the Olympic Games that the world’s most populated country showcases its strength to indomitable effect.
Table tennis was introduced as an Olympic sport at the 1988 Games in Seoul. Since its debut in that year, and in the six Games that have followed, a total of 28 gold medals have been up for grabs. China has won 24 of them, and has failed to register a medal in an event just once.
If you were to compare the total budget of the Chinese table tennis programme to any other country, the differences would be vast
While the three highest-ranked female players in the world according to the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) are all Chinese, world no. 1 Liu Shiwen was unable to secure a place in the singles at Rio, having to settle for a spot in the team competition instead.
This monopoly extends to the upper echelons of the men’s game too. The Chinese occupy the top four rankings, yet world no.2 Fan Zhendong misses out on the Games altogether, while Xu Xin – currently no. 3 in the world – joins Shiwen in being overlooked for the individual event.
Indeed, those privileged enough to go for gold alone have so far made short work of their opponents in Rio. The start of round three on Sunday saw the seeded players enter the fray, where Ma Long and Ding Ning – top seeds in the men’s and women’s draws respectively – both progressed comfortably to the next round with 4-0 victories. Women’s third seed Li Xiaoxia and men’s second seed Zhang Jike start their quests for gold on Monday; both are also expected to make it far in the competition.
In other words, the number of world-class players at China’s disposal is simply unrivalled. As other nations rush to fill their squads with their best-ranked competitors, China can afford to compete for women’s singles gold without the best player on the planet – and still be considered as comfortable favourites for first place on the podium.
The Chinese table tennis machine is a sporting juggernaut whose decades-long reign has left such an impression on the world stage that it has also managed to attract significant support from beyond its borders.
A sponsorship deal was struck between the national table tennis team and Dubai in 2013 to strengthen existing ties, an investment which will in turn only improve the already enviable resources available to the country.
Liu Fengyan – Vice Chairman of the Chinese Table Tennis Association – had some revealing words when news of the deal was first made public. “The cooperation with Dubai is beyond sport itself,” he said. “It is as much about our communication and cultural dialogue.”
The secret to worldwide sporting acclaim
Looking beyond sport, communication, cultural dialogue - the parallels with the original grand plan for table tennis and the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ of the 1970s are plain to see.
But the reasons for China’s might are not limited solely to Mao’s initial endorsement and the obvious population advantage the country enjoys. Other countries possess players of world-class ability after all. So what additional factors are in play when it comes to China’s consistent dominance?
Ben Larcombe is a London-based table tennis coach and founder of experttabletennis.com who has written on the subject of China's unassailable position in the sport. He argues that the lucrative, state-sanctioned funding of the game in China – as well as the immense pressure to succeed that is placed on its brightest stars – are equally as significant.
“Ultimately, it comes down to the huge amount of money that is spent on table tennis by the Chinese government,” he reveals. “That’s true for most sports and countries. The more money you spend, the more likely you are to be winning gold medals.
“If you were to compare the total budget of the Chinese table tennis programme to any other country, the differences would be vast. More specifically, they have the best coaches, the best support staff, the best facilities, and the best club and provincial development structure in the world.
“The players are also highly motivated, and work very hard from a very young age.”
The cooperation with Dubai is beyond sport itself. It is as much about our communication and cultural dialogue
A crushing clean sweep of gold, silver and bronze in the men’s and women’s singles at their home Olympics in Beijing eight years ago led to a rule change at subsequent Games, meaning that a country could enter a maximum of two competitors in each event.
While this gives other nations the chance to earn a place on the podium, it has also essentially led to two separate narratives being formed in the singles events, as indeed was the case at London 2012 – the almost inevitable all-Chinese final on the one hand, and the battle for bronze among the other competing nations on the other.
Is there any hope then of another country emerging as a rival – and potential usurper – of China?
“China’s position as the powerhouse of international table tennis looks fairly secure at the moment,” says Larcombe.
“There are certainly a few non-Chinese players to watch out for, but when it comes to the team events it’s difficult to see a country managing to find three or four outstanding players who are capable of peaking together and beating the Chinese. The current Chinese B teams would probably beat every other country – and perhaps even their C and D teams.”
By this reckoning, China’s omnipotent presence at the top of the table tennis world looks secure for the foreseeable future.
Schedule – Monday 8 August (all UAE times)
Round 3: Zhang Jike (CHINA) v Chen Chien-An (CHINESE TAIPEI)
Round 4: Ma Long (CHINA) v Jeoung Youngsik (SOUTH KOREA)
Round 3: Li Xiaoxia (CHINA) v Li Fen (SWEDEN)
Round 4: Ding Ning (CHINA) v Doo Hoi Kem (HONG KONG)