Dynasties come and dynasties go. One of the big questions being asked about the upcoming Rio Olympics is will this be the end of China’s overwhelming domination of ping pong?
The consensus seems to be no. The only real drama ping pong promises to deliver is over which one of the fabulously talented superstars on China’s team will shine brightest.
The paddling in Rio begins just three weeks from Saturday, on Aug 6, and though the competition will be intense among the second-tier nations, it’s pretty much expected that they will be slugging it out for bronze medals, silver at best.
The US has never so much as medaled in table tennis (AKA whiff waff, pom-pom, netto, tennis de salon, among others), the world’s most popular racket sport, which was invented in England in the 1880s, introduced in China in 1901 through English settlements and only added to the Olympic roster in 1988 in Seoul.
Since then, Chinese teams have taken home 24 of 28 gold medals and all of the gold medals from the last two Olympiads, according to The Associated Press. For those counting, the Chinese mainland has claimed a total of 47 medals in all, followed by South Korea with 18 and Germany with five.
In a land where literally millions of people play ping pong and top players are treated like pop stars, making the Olympic team is understandably not so easy.
For the team headed to Rio, Liu Shiwen, currently ranked the No 1 woman in the world, was not picked for one of China’s two women’s singles spots, though she will be part of the team. The women’s singles will be London Olympics champion Li Xiaoxia, now ranked No 5 in the world, and London silver-winner Ding Ning, now No 2 in the world.
On the men’s side, neither current world No 2 Fan Zhendong nor No 3 Xu Xin made the Chinese singles team. Instead it will be London champion Zhang Jike, ranked No 4, and Ma Long, the current No 1.
Playing catch up, the rest of the world has been helped by the rule that limits each country to just two players for each singles event, which probably means battling for the bronze. But what would an Olympics be without a few upsets?
On the women’s side, Japan has three players in the top 10; Germany and Singapore have one each. For the men, Chinese mainland players hold the top four spots, followed by one each from Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Belarus and ROK.
While the US team’s prospects may not be bright, one of its players has already made Olympic history – and stirred up a lot of excitement about the US’ future. Californian Kanak Jha, now 16, became the youngest male ever to qualify for ping pong when he made the US team last April, while he was still 15.
“He has a good fighting spirit,” said US Olympic coach Massimo Costantini. “Sometimes at that age they get upset and are not mature. We’re working on the mental side to make him stronger. A simple mistake can compromise the entire match. It’s not just managing success, but failure.”
Jha’s parents are from India. He was born in the US after his mother and father moved here to study and work. His mother runs a hypnotherapy and reiki service, reiki being the Japanese “laying on of hands” healing therapy that promotes well being by channeling energy.
“She feels my energy,” Jha said of his mother.
After losing an exhibition match last week to an older Chinese player, Jha was asked what made the Chinese players so good – aside from their devotion to the sport and its prominence in their culture.
“They’re very strong,” Jha said, “especially in the first three shots of the rally – serve, receive and third-ball attack. They really dominate the rally.”
And thus the ping pong dynasty continues.
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