Chinese Domination in Table tennis

You Gotta be a Chinese to excel in Table Tennis (At least in the Olympics)

Back in the 1990’s, there was only a trickling migration of players from China to certain countries in Europe. But that movement grew, and today it has produced a full-fledged, far-flung diaspora of athletes on six continents that has reshaped the landscape of the sport.

At the Summer Olympics in Beijing, Chinese-born table tennis players represented China, of course. But they were also playing for 21 other countries, out of 56 in the tournament.

Of the 172 table tennis players at the Games, at least 44 were born in China. Six were representing China.

Many sports at the Olympics feature athletes who were born outside the country they represent. The United States, for example, has dozens of athletes born outside the country, across more than 20 sports which is not uncommon.

But table tennis is an outlier: About a third of its participants this summer were born outside the nation they are representing. All other sports are far behind.

It’s not uncommon for an athlete to represent a country he or she was not born in, but no other sport has the rate that table tennis does with a whooping 32%.

No two athletes’ stories or circumstances in which they grew are the same. But considered together, the list of Chinese-born table tennis players highlights the huge scope of China’s influence in the sport and illustrates perhaps its most pressing question: Is this the best way for table tennis to grow? Will this bring about a decline in the standard of sports allowed in Olympics?

“It’s not a problem,” Thomas Weikert, the president of the International Table Tennis Federation, the sport’s governing body, said, “It’s an issue.”

China has now won 28 of the 32 gold medals awarded in all competitions since table tennis was added to the Olympics in 1988. Eight years ago in Beijing, China won the gold, silver and bronze medals in both men’s and women’s singles. In 2012, after a new rule was instituted limiting singles competitions to two players from each nation, China merely swept the gold and silver medals.

One byproduct of China’s dominance — and the popularity of the sport in the country — has been an extremely large group of talented players who are not quite good enough to play in the national program. In the Chinese system, perfected over many decades, provincial clubs draw players from city teams before sending their best to the national program. Only the best 50 men and best 50 women reach the top.

Before the 1988 Olympics, Massimo Costantini was playing for Italy in the European qualifying tournament when he encountered Ding Yi, a player who had moved from China to Austria. Costantini, now the coach of the United States team, lost to Ding that day, and he remembered the other players, coaches and fans feeling bewildered about what had happened.

“We were shocked, actually, to be playing against someone Chinese,” said Costantini, who was later added to the Olympics as a wild-card entrant.

Ding played in four Olympics for Austria, and the trend only grew. Players facing dim prospects in China have increasingly sought to extend their careers as both players and coaches in other countries eager to host them.

Everyone acknowledges how far ahead China remains in terms of training and skill. The thinking for many national federations, then, has been that having such skilled players and coaches around — beyond giving them a chance to win competitions in the short term — will raise the skill levels of those countries’ other players.

Players notice when recently transferred athletes appear interested only in furthering their own careers, or fail to exceed some ambiguous threshold of enthusiasm about their new homes, or spend most of their time in their home countries.

Such judgments — if they have a purpose — seem hard to make. Circumstances vary hugely from player to player, with only talent as a common factor.

But this only proves China looks unbeatable in Table tennis for at least another 20 years.

Even after limiting the number of contestants per country to reduce the absolute dominance of China, most of the medals are going into the Chinese kitty for Table Tennis.