China swept all the table tennis medals at the 2008 Olympics. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Table Tennis in China Part I: King of the Table

Zhenyu Li

Table tennis, known as pingpong in China, is China's national sport, and a source of pride right up there with the Great Wall and pandas.

The Chinese have played a major role in transforming table tennis from a pastime of Victorian gentlemen to a sport of the masses.

The Chinese sports legend Deng Yaping is considered to be one of the greatest table tennis players of all time.

The Dominance

China owns table tennis like the United States once dominated men's basketball.

China has won every gold medal in three Olympics, and four years ago in Beijing, it swept all possible medals.

The Chinese teams do not have a weak link. If you take away any of the team members, they remain very strong. As a matter of fact, they could even enter two teams and still win a gold and a silver medal.

China's supremacy even prompted the International Table Tennis Federation to alter its rules for the London Games, hoping to give a few others a chance.

A look at national table tennis teams in various countries over the last few decades shows hundreds of Chinese players who took their superior game abroad. More often than not, they became the best players wherever they landed.

The dominance of the Chinese players has caused some consternation in Canada, where three of the four members of the Olympic table tennis team are Chinese born.

Even though table tennis is played all around the world, not many nations can even compete with China. Japan and South Korea probably present the strongest challenge from Asia, with Germany the top threat from Europe.

China dominates world table tennis so thoroughly that it created a problem as the London Games get closer.

The top five men and top five women in the world rankings are all Chinese, but Olympic rules allow for only three men and women to make each squad.

Secret to Success

With China's undeniable dominance on the pingpong table, some might wonder what the secrets are to China's success.

The Chinese are often criticized by the Western media for running Soviet-style sports mills, in which children are selected for particular sports based on their physique. But with table tennis, there seems to be a large enough reservoir of enthusiastic talent in the population of 1.3 billion.

"If the children love pingpong, they'll be easy to train," said Xu Zhichong, a coach at the Xuanwu Sports School in Beijing. "That lets them develop their own individual character as a player."

"It was a perfect sport for the Chinese physique," said Liang Geliang, a former world champion and a professor at Peking University Health Science Center. "It is not important if you're strong. You have got to be smart and you've got to have good nerves."

Bettine Vriesekoop, a two-time European champion from the Netherlands who lives in China, said that when she first came to China to play, she was curious about the secret of the Chinese players.

"Well, there was really no secret," she said. "They have a very simple and practical way of training. They do three or four basic exercises, and then they play until they learn to play without making mistakes."

Chinese sports legend Deng Yaping is considered to be one of the greatest table tennis players of all time. When she retired at the age of 24, she had won more titles than any other player in the sport, including four Olympic gold medals, and had been World Champion 18 times.

When asked what the secrets are of being so good at table tennis, Deng replied: "Practice."

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Zhenyu Li, a contributing columnist for some of the world's foremost sports publications, authors the "Beyond Gold" column for People's Daily Online in China.


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