China is the brand name in table tennis and its dominance is the envy of the rest of the world. The country is obsessed with the sport -- you'll find tables at apartment complexes across the major cities -- and has won 20 of 24 gold medals since the sport was introduced into the Olympics in 1988, a historic stretch that included sweeping both men's and women's singles and team competition four years ago in Beijing.
SPORTS EXPLAINERS: TABLE TENNIS
In London, they are again an overwhelming favorite to sweep the individual events.
China's Zhang Jike is the reigning world champion and World Cup winner in singles, and the favorite to win gold in London. His teammate Wang Hao, the 2008 silver medalist, is China's other male singles competitor, and Ma Long will join them in the team event. How deep is China? The five top-ranked players in the world are from the country, including Ma Lin, who will not compete in London. The wild card to break China's dominance is Germany's Timo Boll, the No. 6-ranked player in the world and the key member of the German team that took silver in Beijing. Japan's Jun Mizutani, a quarterfinalist in the World Cup in 2011, is also a player to watch.
On the women's side, China is a big favorite, though none of the country's singles medalists from Beijing have returned for London, including Zhang Yining, who won gold in 2004 and 2008, and is considered one of the greatest players in history. (She retired from international play in 2011 at age 29.) The gold medal favorites in singles are China's Ding Ning, currently the world's No. 1-ranked player, and Li Xiaoxia (ranked third). Guo Yue, who was part of the Chinese team that won team gold in 2008, will join her teammates for the team competition. Japan's Kasumi Ishikawa is the only non-Chinese player in the world's top five rankings and a medal contender. Tie Yana of Hong Kong and Kim Kyung-ah of South Korea are also ones to watch.
The U.S. has never won a medal in table tennis and that drought won't end in London. But the future is promising on the women's side as the Americans will send three teenage players with exceptional talent: 16-year-old Ariel Hsing, 16-year Lily Zhang and 15-year-old Erica Wu. Hsing and Zhang will compete in singles, and Wu will join Hsing and Wu for the team event. (Hsing is ranked No. 134 in the world rankings, Zhang is 145 and Wu is 465.) The 20-year-old Timothy Wang, the 2010 U.S. champion, is the lone man representing the United States on the men's side. Hsing, Wang and Zhang all train together at the India Community Table Tennis Center in Milpitas, Calif., which for the moment is the epicenter of table tennis in the U.S.
Given that the Olympic competition has set a limit of two players from any one nation competing in men's and women's singles -- the third qualifier for men and women is limited to the team event -- there are medals to be had where China once reigned. But the matchups worth watching will be when the Chinese athletes face off deep in the event, most likely for gold. Hundreds of millions of viewers globally watched Ma Lin defeat Wang Hao in the Beijing finals.
Anyone facing the Chinese in table tennis is an underdog, including the 31-year-old Boll, who was ranked briefly atop the world rankings last year. The German has been Europe's top player for a decade but to win a gold or silver in London would be an incredible achievement. London will be the fourth Olympics for Boll -- with his best result a fourth-place finish in Athens -- and his success in the sport has made him a star in China.
"Sometimes in China I feel a little bit like rock star, but we have to be sportsmen and professionals," Boll said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's not the life of a rock star. There's no hanging around in bars and discotheques. But sometimes at big events there are many fans and we need soldiers to protect us."
Hsing is buddies with billionaire and table tennis devotee Warren Buffett. (She even calls him "Uncle Warren.") In a letter to shareholders, Buffet recalled: "The week I turned 75, I played Ariel, then 9 and barely tall enough to see across the table, thinking I would take it easy on her so as not to crush her young spirit. Instead she crushed me."
August 1: Women's Singles (10:30 a.m. ET)
August 2: Men's Singles (10:30 a.m. ET)
August 7: Women's Team (10:30 a.m. ET)
August 8: Men's Team (10:30 a.m. ET)