No sport has ever been so dominated by one country as China has ruled table tennis.
The statistics are remarkable. Since it was first introduced at the Olympics in 1988, 28 of the 32 gold medals have been won by Chinese players.
They have a rather amazing ongoing stranglehold on it and this year’s Games should be no different. Currently, six of the top seven female players in the world and four of the top five men are from China.
(LR) Long Ma, Xin Xu and Jike Zhang from China pose with their medals in Rio 2016
In Rio de Janeiro, 2016, 44 of the participating players were born in China, six are allowed to represent their home country and the others have qualified through their place of residence or family ties elsewhere.
The obvious reason why China excels is, of course, the sheer number of people who play with 10 million people said to compete regularly and 300 million (not far from the population of the US), who play occasionally.
But in the professional ranks, not every player practices relentlessly, is he exposed to great coaching and finance?
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at why China continues to crush their opposition.
A clear path and machine-like training
Where Chinese training differs from other regimes around the world is the use of multiple balls at once. A player will often practice against two others, to establish muscle memory in all parts of the game.
Only after this automatic mastery is achieved will players be able to add personal style and independent touches.
Children will be instructed on a specific technique and repeat it during training for two weeks so that it becomes deeply ingrained.
Training starts young and the focus for players is on repetition until muscle memory becomes
At the club level, talented new players have regular competitions to hone their craft and there is a clear path to provincial level if they are good enough.
The best provincial players are generally already in the top 300 in the world and of those players a select few will make the cut for the national team.
Children from the age of five are tested for proficiency in the sport and can then be sent to specialist schools to maximize their talents.
In the run-up to major events like the Olympics, the already hyper-serious training environment for the national side is ramping up again.
Ning Ding won gold at the World Championships and Olympics in Rio and is favorite for Tokyo
‘Closed training’ usually happens about two months before the event and everything is shut down to focus. No foreign players, outside influences or media are allowed near the players.
The seriousness with which coaches want their players to focus on the sport is perhaps best summed up by these words in the Guardian: ‘In the summer of 2009, after years of punitive training and sacrifice, Chinese table tennis star Wang Hao was finally rewarded – — not only with the number 1 place in the world, but also with the right to have a girlfriend.
“Sports officials have ordered the 25-year-old player to be allowed to date a fellow athlete, local media reported, five years after he violated a romance ban.”
Culture and political significance
China first embraced table tennis in the 1950s when Chairman Mao decided it would become the country’s national sport.
In 1959, Ring Guotuan became the first Chinese champion in any sport and his victory was called a “spiritual nuclear weapon” by Mao.
It seemed a natural fit for the communist country as many players could play without great expense or large amounts of space.
Table tennis is a great source of national pride for China and almost all schools, factories and office buildings have a few tables.
Age is not a real barrier and competitive or relaxed games can be played between anyone. Recent trends even suggest that the explosion in popularity of basketball and football means that many young people now view table tennis as a game for the older generation, so it will be interesting to see how that will affect results in the future.
There are ping pong tables in parks across the country and millions play the game
Young children are scouted for hand-eye coordination and then taken to special schools
With state funded facilities it is likely that there will always be a rich talent pool here and the scale of some training facilities is mind boggling.
The Luneng Table Tennis School in Shandong has 230 boarding schools and a gymnasium with 80 tables.
The best players in China are celebrities and about 350 million people regularly tune in to watch their favorites compete in the Super League.
While the grip it has on public consciousness may be fading, it is still considered an important part of Chinese life.
The Numbers Game
As mentioned, 300 million casual players and 10 million competitive performers make the pool ridiculously large to choose from.
It has been said that in China there is one ping pong table for every seven inhabitants, which is a staggering statistic for a country of 1.3 billion people.
Seeing Chinese players conquering the world again and again also provides inspiration for those who want to pursue their dreams and there is never a shortage of people to play.
Since 1996, China has only missed out on gold once – in the 2004 Athens men’s singles.
From Seoul 1988 to Rio 2016, China has won 53 medals, including 28 gold, 17 silver and 8 bronze in table tennis.
Zhou Qihao poses with his medal from the Olympic simulation tournament in China
When such rich resources are put into China, which is the best table tennis country, they have the capacity to hire ‘blue partners’.
This is when provincial top players are brought in to effectively clone a style of a top competitor that a Chinese player might face in international competition.
The famous German player, Timo Boll, was considered a threat to China’s dominance, so Hao Shuai, a top-level player, was told to imitate him.
Shuai effectively became a copy of Boll and the other players were able to get used to his style effectively.
The Blue Partner is an incredibly useful training aid for the Chinese national team and gives them a big advantage when big matches are important.
Players have been used to emulate the style of rivals from around the world such as Timo Boll
Plans for the future
Last month it was decided that a simulation Olympic tournament would be held in China.
In total, 36 men’s and women’s players played in singles, while mixed doubles included 16 pairs.
The selection process was interesting with players qualifying through the results of the National Games and Junior Trials meaning a mix of participants.
The CTTA said it was being done to develop young players of different ages, targeting not only Tokyo but also the long-term selection tool for Paris 2024.
Keeping an eye on the future and supplying top competition to the talent line is another reason why China remains the undisputed home of table tennis.
The country is always looking for the next great talent and there is a clear path