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Table Tennis 101: History

James Lang

Table Tennis 101: History

Learn the history of table tennis at the Olympics. 

Jump to a section:  1988 |1992 | 1996 | 2000 | 2004 | 2008 | 2012

Seoul, 1988
China displayed inscrutability, then depth in 1988. Prior to the Games, Chinese officials dropped He Zhili, the reigning women's singles world champion, from its team. He's exclusion was punishment for defying an order the previous year to throw a match against teammate Guan Jianhu at the World Championships, which he then won. In her absence, China nonetheless swept the women's singles medals in Seoul.

The Chinese men arrived at the Games as the unquestioned superpower in table tennis, but were in dire need of some Seoul-searching after being "humiliated," as the Xinhua News Agency put it. China's number three, Xu Zengcai, lost in the Round of 16 and its number two, Chen Longcan, fell in the quarters. The shocker was the demise of two-time world champ Jiang Jialiang, the most popular athlete in the world's most populous nation. Jiang was defeated by Sweden's Erik Lindh in the quarters.

Barcelona, 1992 

At age 9, China's Deng Yaping won a provincial championship but was left off the provincial team because officials feared that she was too short. Six years later, the same thing happened after the diminutive Deng won the national championship. But she eventually won a spot on the Chinese national team as well as a world championship before arriving at the 1992 Olympics at age 19 and at a height of 4 feet, 10 1/2 inches. In Barcelona, she silenced skeptics by teaming with Qiao Hong to win the gold in women's doubles and then defeated Hong for gold in singles.

It was athletically disinclined comedian Woody Allen who once said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." The Chinese men's doubles team of Lu Lin and Wang Tao concurred. When the bus that was to take them from the Olympic Village to the Estacio del Nord for their Gold Medal Match failed to arrive, Lu and Wang began running to the arena in a panic. At last they hailed a taxi and appeared just in time to face their German counterparts. Lu and Wang handled the other 20%, winning in five games.

Sweden's Jan-Ove Waldner already won two world championships by the time he arrived in Barcelona, but he also finished a disappointing eighth in Seoul. Employing a serve that his opponent in the singles final, Jean-Philippe Gatien of France, described as "awful and ghastly," Waldner won handily, 21-10, 21-18, 25-23. He also gave the Swedes their first gold in these Olympics.

Atlanta, 1996
Playful, paunchy and displaying an unapologetic fondness for beer -- which he reportedly swigged while playing on the European circuit -- China's Wang Tao defied the image of the intense and ascetic paddler in Atlanta. Nevertheless, Wang, 28, was able to advance to the Gold Medal Match against his close friend, Liu Guoliang. After losing the match (21-6 in the deciding game), Wang said, "I lost to my own countryman, not a foreigner. That makes me happy."

The Chinese hoarded the medals in Atlanta, capturing eight of the 12 that were awarded in the four events. And since countries are limited to two doubles teams, China could only have won a maximum of 10. The Chinese won gold and silver in both doubles events as well as gold in both singles events. The silver medalist in women's singles, Chen Jing of Taiwan, had won gold in this event in 1988 -- representing her native China.

Because of her diminutive stature (4-foot-10, 115 pounds), China's Deng Yaping was something of a curiosity earning gold in the singles and doubles (with partner Qiao Hong) in Barcelona. In Atlanta, she was simply a monstrosity -- to opponents, that is -- duplicating her 1992 double (again teaming with Hong in doubles). Her four golds, in as many tries, remain the most won by anyone in the sport.

Sydney, 2000 
China's Kong Linghui grew up watching Swedish legend Jan-Ove Waldner on television and "wanted to emulate him." Before a raucous capacity crowd that included Sweden's King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia, Kong did just that. In a thrilling five-set match, Kong defeated Waldwner to win the gold medal, just as the four-time Olympian Waldner had done eight years earlier in Barcelona.

Microsoft co-founder Bill (as in "billionaire") Gates attended a preliminary men's singles match between American Yinghua Cheng and Seiko Iseki of Japan. Cheng, the top-ranked American male, lost in four games. He and Jun Gao Chang, the best female paddler representing Team USA, were both Chinese emigrants. The U.S. was not the only country "outsourcing" its talent, as the top female players from Australia and Germany were also Chinese expatriates.

Athens, 2004 
Zhang Yining overwhelmed North Korean Kim Hyang-Mi in just 26 minutes, 11-8, 11-7, 11-2, 11-2, in the women's singles final to give China its 100th gold medal since joining Olympic competition in 1984. Kim Kyung-Ah topped Li Jiawei of Singapore to win the bronze medal, becoming South Korea's first female table tennis medalist.

Having already swept gold in men's and women's doubles and women's singles, China was in position for another Olympic sweep. But Ryu Seung-Min played the role of spoiler, beating China's Wang Hao in six games to become the first South Korean to win the men's table tennis gold medal. It marked the first time that Ryu defeated Wang since the 1999 Asian Youth Championships. "I didn't quite expect this, so I am quite thrilled," said Ryu, who upon winning launched himself into his coach's arms, wrapping his legs around Kim Teak-Soo's hips.

Beijing, 2008 
China did not disappoint on home soil. The hosts won eight of the 12 available medals, including all four gold medals. South Korea managed two bronze medals while Germany and Singapore claimed one silver medal apiece. China's sweep of men's and women's singles (winning gold, silver and bronze), led to changes for 2012. 

Zhang Yining was the woman to claim gold in both the women's singles and women's team events, while Ma Lin had the honor of doing so for the Chinese on the men's side. Wang Nan claimed silver and Guo Yue earned bronze in women's singles, while Wang Hao took silver and Wang Liqin won bronze in men's singles.

London, 2012

The London 2012 Olympics saw the return of team-based competitions instead of doubles. Additionally, new rules limited each participating country to only two players per gender - meaning China could not again sweep the singles competition.  

Regardless, China took home the maximum possible six medals - four gold, two silver. Singles gold medalists Zhang Jike and Li Xiaoxia also earned the top prize in their respective team competitions.  

Table tennis 101

Learn more about table tennis:

Basics | Scoring | History | Glossary | Venue | Equipment

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