In the world of table tennis, there are three tiers of excellency: good, great and China. “A cut above the dotted line”, noted Tokyo Olympics table tennis commentator Adam Bobrow, as he watched the first class match between Ma Long (马龙) and his fellow Chinese countryman Fan Zhendong (樊振东) for the men’s singles’ title.
Adam was right. According to official statistics, since table tennis became an Olympic sport at Seoul in 1988, China has claimed a whopping 28 gold medals out of a possible 32 up to Rio 2016. For the past two decades, in the annual Table Tennis World Cup, Chinese male players missed out on the title only five times, while the female players have never lost it since the inception of the Women’s World Cup in 1996. In the same period, the country managed to achieve a clean sweep of gold at every World Table Tennis Championships except for 2003, 2013 and 2017.
Numbers don’t lie. Yet meanwhile, this flawless track record fuels several myths of China table tennis dominance. So today, let me try to tackle them one by one.
Myth #1: China invented table tennis and had a head-start
Table Tennis, or Ping Pang (乒乓球), did not originate from China. Rather it was invented by upper-class Victorians in England as an after-dinner pastime. Perhaps feeling bored after a sumptuous three-course meal and looking for some gentlemanly exercise, the English, with a bit of creative flair, turned a dining table into a makeshift mini tennis court. A row of books then served as net in the middle and two more books as rackets to hit a golf ball.
So by any measure, China is actually quite late to the game. It was nowhere on the country’s map, until Rong Guotuan (容国团) clinched a historical gold medal in the 25th World Championship in 1959.
To put this into context, the 1950s were a trying time for China. The country was in a dire state after devastating wars against Japan and the Nationalists. People were desperate for some good news. And then came Rong Guotuan’s surprising win. The whole nation was in awe and galvanised.
Shrewd party leaders quickly chimed in amidst the euphoria. From that moment on, sporting excellence took on a deeper political connotation in China, which is to instil national pride and generate international recognition.
Table Tennis, by good fortune, was uniquely positioned in this fresh drive for athletic greatness. It takes little to set up and to train. It demands more dexterity than physical strength. The exact kind of no-frill sports that a financially constrained China needed at the time. The halo effect of national hero Rong Guotuan further added fuel to the fire. Everyone picked up the rackets; there was no shortage of enthusiastic young athletes aspiring to shine on the international arena and bring glory to the motherland.
- Interesting fact: Any semi-serious players would know the table tennis equipment brand DHS (红双喜). DH stands for “double happiness”, duly named by the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai at the time, to commemorate the dual achievements of Rong Guotuan and the decennial founding of the People’s Republic of China.
In the ensuing decades, things went from good to great for table tennis. “The small ball sets the big one in motion (小球带动大球)”, as the Chinese saying goes. Dubbed “Ping Pang diplomacy (乒乓外交)”, a series of exchanges between Chinese and American table tennis players helped ease decades-long hostility between the two countries, paving the way for Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.
So in a remarkable way, all the stars were aligned to crown table tennis as China’s national sports.
Myth #2: China’s unmatched dominance is due to domestic popularity and mass participation
Yes and no.
Yes in the sense that China is indeed a massive country. With a 1.4 billion population, it naturally has deep talent pool for everything. But not all sports are created equal. What drives China’s exceptional achievement in table tennis specifically is the sheer scale and sophistication of its selection and training system for the professional athletes.
The state-funded sports system (“whole nation sports system”, 举国体制) has over time perfected a production line for table tennis champions. For a sport with no strong commercial value, no other country in the world is able to replicate the amount of resources China pours into table tennis.
The race begins from local sports school, city-level sports academy, provincial-level sports academy, and then all the way up to provincial team, national B team and finally culminating in the national A team. There are multi-tier government bureaucracies and coaching teams to take care of these athletes at each level.
At the bottom of the pyramid, there are tens of thousands of athletes dedicating their entire life to training from a young age. The opportunity cost is high, as academic learning, normal school and family life need to be put aside. Until a couple of them eventually ascend to the top, rewarded with the honour to represent the country.
As you can imagine, for these toughened up Chinese players, the biggest challenge is not the Olympics but at home, to win the ticket to get there. You can trust that whoever makes it through unscathed from this arduous journey, does not only possess the best techniques, but also an incredible level of grit and resilience, which is often the most decisive factor in big events like the Olympics.
Hard work and mental strength aside, the quality of the training these top athletes enjoy is also hard to beat. Chinese table tennis has such a strong heritage that many of its most decorated players take up coaching roles after retirement. In fact, I think Adam Bobrow once tried to count the number of former world champions in the Chinese coaching squad at Tokyo Olympics but failed – so this says it all.
And please don’t be fooled by the meek look of the Table Tennis chief and ex-national team head coach, Liu Guoliang (刘国梁). He may just look like another chubby Chinese bureaucrat (apparently some foreign fans made this mistake before, earning Liu an impossible nickname “the fatty who does not understand Ping Pang 不懂球的胖子” among Chinese netizens), but he was widely regarded as one of the greatest table tennis players and coaches of his time. He has a reputation for drilling tactics and driving technique innovations. So in a way, the impressive outcome we see today does not only belong the current generation of Chinese players.
Interesting fact: The Chinese table tennis national team also has two secret weapons, which again put standard of training in a league of its own.
- First, bootcamp behind closed door (封闭训练), which involves intense full time training usually about two months ahead of big events. No press and no distractions allowed. At the end of it, the head coach will decide who gets to play for country. Anything can happen in these two months and even the world’s number one seed still needs to prove him or herself.
- Second, “Blue Partner” system is a way to get a hitting partner to clone certain technique and style of key opponents. These hitting partners are mostly top provincial level players who did not make the cut for the national team.
Myth #3: China is invincible in table tennis
Yes for the women’s game but no for the men’s.
In fact, in the 1980s and 1990s, Sweden used to dominate the men’s game. Jan-Ove Waldner, the legendary Swedish player fondly known as Elder Waldner (老瓦) by the Chinese, is as popular in China as in his native country. Other older generation players, such as Waldner’s countryman Jörgen Persson, Jean-Philippe Gatien (France) and Vladimir Samonov (Belarus) are also household names in China. But fast forward to more recent time, it has become increasingly rare to spot formidable non-Chinese players. So why is that?
The lack of resources to support innovation, intense and high quality training, as mentioned above, is clearly one crucial factor. But in my humble opinion, it is also hard not to point fingers at the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF).
To encourage competition, and rightly so, ITTF has pushed through many rule changes in recent years. The most notable ones include adopting larger balls, moving from 21 to 11 point system and no block serve.
Regrettably, by doing so, ITTF actually scored its own goal. With the support of China’s vast resources and training support apparatus, Chinese players have proved to be much more adaptable to these changes. So ironically, the measures designed by ITTF to narrow the gap between China and the rest of the world end up exacerbating the problem it tries to solve.
Myth #4: China keeps everything close to its chest to maintain supremacy
It is true that everyone in China adores their table tennis team and would like to cheer them on for greater things. But many, especially those in the profession, are acutely aware that China’s supremacy is no good news for table tennis as a whole. In fact, they have been very thoughtful about what comes next for the sport and China’s role in it.
Enough to say, I like what I hear, when they outline their vision.
“In order for China to be truly integrated, we need to share our outstanding players, coaches and successful table tennis culture with the world. Otherwise, the rest of world can only depend on one or two players with natural gift to compete with China. And this is not going to work.”
“Regarding the future of table tennis, I’m not really concerned about our results. I’m more worried about the game’s popularity among young people, as well as the promotion of the sports on the global stage. This is a much more pressing problem. And we decided to face up to this challenge. We have been proactively promoting table tennis both within China and internationally. We send athletes and coaches to places around the world including Africa and Americas. Our hope is that table tennis can captivate and appeal more to the younger generation.”(From Liu Guoliang, China table tennis chief and ex-head coach of national team)
“For a country with such superiority in this sports, We have to have an open mind. We cannot close the door. We would like to produce a kind of world centre of table tennis in China. We would like to attract more and more of the world’s elite players to China. I very much appreciate the spirit of the National Basketball Association. After the players’ NBA experience they will improve. And then they will return home, representing their countries in the Olympic Games. ”(From Dr. Zhang Xiaopeng, Deputy secretary, Chinese Table Tennis Association)
And they do not just talk the talk. Taking a glance at any international table tennis events, you will invariably notice Chinese coaches in foreign teams. As a matter of fact, most top Japanese players, the key challengers to China’s dominance, are known to have spent years training in China together with their Chinese counterparts.
Ai Fukuhara (福原爱), the leading female Japanese player who retired after Rio Olymics, has a huge following among Chinese fans, too. As a child prodigy, she came to train in China at an young age and speaks fluent Mandarin (with a cute Northeastern accent). Despite all the noises in the press, the newly minted Tokyo Olympics mixed-double gold medalist Mima Ito has also received her training for years in China.
I think I will stop here. Thank you for reading, and I hope I manage to clear some of your questions about table tennis in China.
To finish it off, let me share my favourite table tennis moment in Tokyo Olympics: 58 years old ex-Chinese player Ni Xialian (倪夏莲) representing Luxembourg returned once again to the Olympics, this time playing against South Korea’s rising star Shin Yubin, 41 years her junior. For me, this speaks for the best of the Chinese table tennis: a wonderful athlete brings her passion and skill to her new home, and with her exceptional longevity shows the path forward for the next generation that it is not all about winning.