With over 10,000 athletes and hundreds of nations competing, the Olympics are the greatest spectacle in sports.
The Olympics, in concept, date back to Ancient Greece. They were a series of religious and athletic events held every four years. However, the modern Olympic Games were created in 1894 along with the International Olympic Committee.
Table tennis is a recent addition to the Summer Games, but it has quickly gained popularity as one of the most-watched events. In this article, you’ll learn about how table tennis got started as an Olympic sport and some of the most thrilling moments in the sport’s history.
Since When Is Table Tennis Part of the Olympic Games?
First joining the Olympic lineup in the 1988 games held in Seoul, South Korea, table tennis medals have now been awarded at the games on 32 occasions. The men singles event was the first showcased in 1988, but both men and women competed in their respective categories from the start.
However, the history of table tennis goes back much further. In 1932, the International Table Tennis Federation tried to hold table tennis exhibition events at the Berlin Olympics. Those efforts proved fruitless, however. The same push was made for the 1940 Olympics which ultimately never took place.
In the post-war era, the inclusion of table tennis in the Olympics became a hotly-debated topic. The chairman of the ITTF at the time, Ivor Montagu, didn’t support the idea. And despite England having the largest population of table tennis athletes, the British Olympic Committee was also reluctant.
The relevant authorities took up the matter a second and third time throughout the intervening decades. The definition of amateur and professional players was the most significant sticking point, and it wasn’t resolved until the mid-1980s.
The current table tennis Olympic program includes four disciplines, with five events slated to be debuted at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Starting in 1988 and running until 2004, there were singles and doubles events for both men and women competitors. However, in 2008, the doubles events were replaced by team match events.
No more than 86 players in total can participate in the Olympics. Up until 2012, each National Olympic Committee could send a maximum of three men and three women. Since then, it has changed to two men and two women per NOC.
Each Committee is restricted to a single team that can qualify for the Olympics. However, the qualifying team events can include a player who doesn’t participate in the singles event. Team matches consist of three-person teams in a best of three format. It starts with a singles match, followed by a doubles match, followed by singles matches until one team is victorious.
The men’s singles and team events typically attract the largest audiences, with almost half-a-billion people tuning in during the Rio 2016 Olympics. The men’s team gold medal event is usually saved for last in the program.
Table Tennis Olympic Games Medalists Through the Years
Since the adoption of table tennis into the Olympic Games, Asian competitors have dominated the sport. The gold and silver medals at the 1988 Olympics were both awarded to South Korean athletes. Since then, Asian competitors have placed in every single Olympic Games with China having the most success.
In total, China has accrued 53 Olympic medals in table tennis. In every Olympics since 1992, Chinese athletes have won at least one medal in every single event. Out of 32 Gold medals awarded, Chinese athletes won 28 of them.
In the 1996 Olympics, the legendary Chinese player, Liu Guoliang, won his first gold medal. He was the second person in the history of the sport to achieve a grand slam (gold medals at the Olympics, the World Cup, and the World Championship). He went on to coach China’s Olympic team at the age of 27.
After defeating Koji Matsushita, Johnny Huang, and Jörg Roßkopf, Liu Guiloang faced off against fellow Chinese player Wang Tao in the finals. He won a hard-fought victory (21–12, 22–24, 21–19, 15–21, 21–6) in what is now regarded as one of the greatest ever Olympic table tennis matches.
At the Beijing 2008 Olympics, when up to three table tennis players from a single NOC could compete in singles events, Chinese players won all three Olympic medals in the men’s singles event. Ma Lin, Wang Hao, and Wang Liquin received gold, silver, and bronze medals respectively.
J. O. Waldner, the Only One Non-Asian Gold Medalist at Singles
A notable exception to the dominance of Asian players is Jan-Ove Waldner. Waldner is the only player not hailing from the Pan-Asian region to win a gold medal at the Olympics in table tennis singles. He won the gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Known to some as the “Mozart of table tennis,” Jan-Ove Waldner is a sporting legend in his native Sweden and also has a cult-like following in China.
When he won his Olympic medal, he was already 27 years old. He would go on to compete for many years, retiring from professional play at the age of 46.
The 1992 Olympics were unusual in that Westerners won both the gold and silver medals. Jean-Phillipe Gatien was the silver medalist with Korean Kim Taek-soo and Chinese Ma Wenge sharing the bronze medal. Jan-Ove Waldner would go on to place at the Olympics once more in the 2000 Sydney Games.
Predictions for the Next Olympic Games
At the time of writing, the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 is due to start on July 23. However, the event is now expected to take place in August 2021. The atypically long period is due to unexpected complications as Olympic Committees decided not to send their athletes to Tokyo amid fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. This decision effectively postpones the games until 2021.
Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto is expected to make a splash at the 2020 Olympics. One of the youngest players to ever win an ITTF World Tour, Harimoto is one of the favorites to place in 2020.
The current #2 seed, Fan Zhendong, is another serious contender for the Olympic gold. Winner of the World Championship and ITTF World Tour, the Olympic gold is one of the few honors that he hasn’t yet received.
Xu Xin is only slightly above Fan Zhendong as the second-highest rated player in the world. Notably, he hasn’t won the World Championship but he has displayed an extraordinary burst of form recently. Should he compete, it will be interesting to see how he performs.
Winning the Pan American Games in Lima, Hugo Calderano secured a spot on the Brazilian Olympic table tennis team. If successful, he will secure the first Olympic medal for Brazilian table tennis.
Another strong contender, Ma Long, has already won three World Championships and is among China’s best table tennis players. He is the third-ranked player on the ITTF rankings and already has three Olympic golds under his belt. He is among those favored to receive the gold medal in 2020.
With half of the world’s top ten players hailing from the Chinese mainland, it’s hard to see anyone other than someone from the Chinese team walking away with the singles gold. Hugo Calderano, Harimoto Tomokazu and even the german’s hope, Dima Ovtcharov certainly stand a chance, but they’re untested in the Olympic arena.
Photo credit: ITTF