Why China will Never Relinquish Dominance in Table Tennis

Why China will Never Relinquish Dominance in Table Tennis

Seven consecutive victories for both the men and women teams at the biennial World Table Tennis Championships – the singular most prestigious competition organised by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF).

As if that is not enough to put forth China’s unrivalled dominance in the sport which first originated in Victorian England as an after-dinner game, the Chinese have maintained a clean gold medal sweep of all the table tennis competitive categories (from women’s singles to men’s team event) for the past three editions of the Olympic Games. 

Since the sport’s introduction in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, China has won a staggering 28 of 32 gold medals on offer. While most nations boast long lasting ‘Golden Eras’ in various sports, the Chinese have boasted an unparalleled sporting dynasty in table tennis that does not look remotely close to crumbling anytime soon.

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With 28 out of 32 Olympic Gold medals, China is the most successful country to ever compete in the sport.

Just what constitutes their recipe for success? 

To understand Chinese success in table tennis, we have to first examine the historical and cultural significance that the sport holds for the nation – from the days of Chairman Mao and the birth of the People’s Republic of China. The low maintenance and easy to play game became a “staple” form of entertainment and leisure for all citizens, young and old alike. 

All that was needed was a concrete slab which could act as a table, concrete bricks in the centre to act as the net, as well as two paddles and a ball, for endless fun that could be enjoyed by youth, factory workers and the elderly. Key figures of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, were enthusiasts themselves, and Chairman Mao even declared it as the national sport of China in the 1950s.  

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Chairman Mao was an enthusiast himself.

When Rong Guotuan won the men’s singles title at the 1959 World Table Tennis Championships, it truly became a symbol of China’s arrival on the world stage, especially after repeated humiliations at the hands of western powers and Japan during and before World War II.

Propaganda value of table tennis (especially with its low popularity in the west) and the stroking of national pride following Rong’s triumph meant that the national sport’s development became the top sporting priority of the ruling CCP, both as a distraction to its impoverished population and as an avenue to put China on the world map. 

As if table tennis was not popular enough in China, ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ in 1971 further elevated the popularity of the sport, as Table Tennis became an instrument of détente between China and its Cold War adversary – the United States of America.

A player from the United States learning table tennis from a Chinese player.

When 15 American table tennis players and officials set foot in China in April of 1971, it was the first official visit by any American to the People’s Republic of China. These developments further encouraged the Chinese to pick up the sport, as it now held a special spot in the nation’s history as a definite icon of Chinese prestige and power. 

Up till today, China’s sporting achievements are made possible by its rigorous state-run sports system, which identifies talents and recruit athletes from as young as five and drills them on the various sporting fundamentals. It is no different for table tennis, where athletes put in six days’ worth of intensive training a week on a weekly basis, to become the best in the world.

The filtering process of table tennis players who are underperforming, lack mental toughness or other ‘weaknesses’ that impede their development is also extremely ruthless, as players are discarded in the blink of an eye and replaced with a younger prodigy almost immediately.

The throngs of Chinese table tennis exports playing in the colours of other nations are prime examples of this cruel elimination process present in not China’s table tennis grooming system. The result is a remaining pool of Chinese national paddlers who are the cream of the crop not just in the country, but in the world of table tennis. 

With China’s state-run sports system and its government’s emphasis on developing table tennis players due to its status as the national sport, it means that the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) continuously receives the best funding, training resources and supporting teams of analyst, coaches and psychologists to groom the next generation of paddlers.

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Children as young as five start training in the sport.

All this combined with their enormous talent pool to choose from, with the world’s largest population of 1.4 billion people, means that it is little wonder China manages to extend its pre-eminence in the sport up till today. 

As China continues to grow in economic power and political clout as a global superpower, you can bet on it expanding its dominance in the sporting arena as well. At the forefront of Chinese sports is the national pride associated with grooming batches and batches of world-renowned table tennis players, as they continue to cement their unrivalled status globally in their national sport.

If recent observations are anything to go by, the China’s ‘Table Tennis Dynasty’ is set to blossom indefinitely. 

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