Rio 2016: Olympic success worth the wait for Ma Long

After nearly a decade at the pinnacle of the sport, Chinese star Ma Long completed the table tennis grand slam with Olympic singles gold. Will Jones tracks the two-winged looper’s journey from junior star to the top of the world

As expected, China this week completed a clean sweep of the Olympic table tennis competition. Having won gold and silver in both the men’s and women’s singles events last weekend, the nation topped the podium again in the men’s and women’s team events – an astonishing continuation of the dominance that has led to them winning 28 of the 32 table tennis gold medals in Olympic history.

In Rio, though, the men’s team was led by a newcomer to the Olympic singles draw – a player who finally seems to have put his demons behind him and consolidated his position as the best player in the world.

Ma Long came to prominence back in 2004 when, just six weeks after his 16th birthday, he won the World Junior Table Tennis Championships in Kobe. Graduation to the senior circuit followed soon afterwards, and it wasn’t long before he was dining at the sport’s top table: runner-up at the German Open in 2005, member of the Chinese team that won the World Championships in 2006, champion in Kuwait and Germany in 2007, winner of the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in 2008 – and all before his 20th birthday.

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A two-winged looper of astounding dexterity, Ma Long has been at the top of the sport ever since. Despite this, though, he hasn’t always been able to convert his talent into titles, and fans, players and coaches have been known to question his mental strength. Following a patchy run of form, Ma wasn’t selected for one of China’s two places in the 2012 Olympic singles competition – despite, by most observers’ reckonings, being the best player in the world.

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Still, as the saying goes, form is temporary but class is permanent. Since his disappointment at missing out on the singles at London 2012 (a team gold medal served as some consolation), Ma has toughened up his game and assumed a near-permanent position at the top of the world rankings. “I didn’t stress too much during the game,” said Ma after winning Olympic singles gold last week, acknowledging his past Achilles heel. “I did my best and played free."

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Winner of the 2015 World Championships and a two-time World Cup champion, Ma last week became just the fifth person to complete the sport’s grand slam – following in the footsteps of Jan-Ove Waldner, the legendary ‘Mozart of table tennis’, who was the first to accomplish the feat. His Olympic gold must have been even sweeter as it came against Zhang Jike, his Chinese teammate and the reigning Olympic champion.

Asked about his nation’s dominance in table tennis, Ma paid tribute to his forebears in the sport. “The reason the Chinese are so good at table tennis is that we actually had a lot of good players leave good foundations for us, and we inherited this foundation and tradition.”

It’s now Ma who’s leaving those foundations for future stars – and there’s no reason to believe that the Chinese dominance he’s helped consolidate won’t continue for years to come.