The Chinese table tennis team is the UCLA of the late 1960s and early ’70s: a team so dominant it almost makes no sense for other countries to show up. And no one will be surprised if China sweeps both the men’s and the women’s competition at the Rio Games.
Proof of China’s depth? The Olympic teams boast the top four men in the world and four of the top five women. Further proof? The women’s world No. 1, Liu Shiwen, couldn’t clinch an Olympic singles spot; instead, Liu will be playing as part of the team event.
Table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988, and since then, the men have won 21 of 44 Olympic medals awarded—in singles and doubles / team events—while the women have won 26 of 44 medals. That brings the Chinese to 47 total medals, while the next closest country is South Korea, with 18. In addition, the Chinese women have won every single Olympic table tennis gold medal except one: in the now-discontinued doubles event in 1988.
The U.S. is not known for being a table tennis powerhouse—in fact, Team USA has never won an Olympic medal in the sport. But heading into Rio, 16-year-old Kanak Jha has drawn attention for being the first American athlete born in the 2000s to qualify for the Olympics. Jha, alongside Timothy Wang and Yijun Feng, will play in the men’s team and singles events in Rio. On the women’s side, the U.S. will send Yue “Jennifer” Wu, Lily Zhang and Jiaqi Zheng to represent Team USA.
Olympic table tennis is a bit different than normal International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) events. Along with the singles matches, Olympic table tennis plays the more popular men’s and women’s team events, as opposed to doubles. In the team event, groups of three players play two singles matches, a doubles match and then two more singles matches as needed. The first team to three match victories wins.
Athletes to watch
Ma, one of the most dominant table tennis players in recent memory, has sat atop the world rankings for nearly four years, and he ranks second all-time in men’s ITTF singles wins—second only to Vladamir Samsonov of Belarus. However, in two of the last three ITTF events, Ma has lost to Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin, but neither athletes did not qualify for the Rio Olympics. Without those competitors in the way, Long will be looking for his first gold medal and everyone else in the world seems to think he will get it, too. The table tennis world tells us in this ITTF Instagram video.
At No. 5 in the world rankings, Li has two ITTF tour wins so far this season, winning the Qatar Open and the Kuwait Open (with Olympic teammate Ding Ning coming in second both times). Li Xiaoxia hopes to continue her run of good form heading into Rio as she looks to defend her gold medal with serious competition from other Chinese players, and the rest of the world.
Jha, who lives and trains with professionals full-time in Sweden, will be the face of the U.S. Olympic table tennis team for years to come. He won the 2016 U.S. men's singles title and the U.S. men's youth title, but winning a medal would be a longshot for him in Rio, especially against the tough Chinese competition. Though the U.S. can look forward to the future; Jha will be around for many Olympics to come and that is nothing but a good thing for a kid who is already making waves on the scene.
Women’s singles— August 10
Men’s singles—August 11
Women’s team—August 16
Men’s team—August 17