After a clean sweep of the Olympics table tennis stakes in Rio, winning all four gold medals in the men’s and women’s singles, and the men’s and women’s team events in table tennis, China is moving forward to claim gold medals in the Paralympics for table tennis as well, clinching two team victories on Friday.
China is the undisputed champion of table tennis, having won 28 of the 32 gold medals awarded since the game was introduced into the Olympic Games in 1988. Japan is emerging as a challenger, having won a silver medal and two bronzes.
Before 2012, one country could win all the gold, silver and bronze medals in an event, as China did in 2008. But the rules were changed to limit each country to only two players in the singles events so that it could only win two of the three medals at most, giving other countries a chance.
But the table tennis story of the 2016 Olympics is neither China’s continuing dominance nor the emerging challenger: it is the proliferation of Chinese table tennis players around the world, representing nations from Canada to Qatar, from Singapore to the Congo Republic. In fact, as The New York Times has pointed out, at least 44 table tennis players who competed in the Rio Olympics were Chinese-born, but only six of them represented China.
China-born players may not stand out when representing an Asian country like Singapore, or even immigrant countries like Canada or Australia. But when they don vests that say they represent Slovakia, Luxembourg, or the Congo the audience sits up and takes notice.
It is not usual for athletes to compete in the Olympics for a country that was not theirs by birth. What is unusual is the scale at which it is happening in one particular sport, table tennis. Thirty-one percent, or almost a third, of table tennis players competing at Rio were not born in the country that they represented.
Inevitably, the emigrant players are pitted against official Chinese team members, as well as against each other at the Olympics and other international athletic events.
Thus, China-born Li Xue of France was pitted against and defeated China-born Li Jie of the Netherlands.
Germany came in third in table tennis this year, behind China and Japan, with a couple of China-born players strengthening their team of six.
The dispersal of China-born players around the world is due to two factors: China produces a great many good players, but it has such a wealth of talent that many excellent players feel they have no chance to take part in tournaments internationally. But, once overseas, they become big fish in a small pond.
This doesn’t mean that those who migrate are second rate. For example, Ni Xialian was a gold medal winner for China at the World Table Tennis Championships in 1983. Yet, she felt that there was so much competition at home that she decided to move overseas, first to Germany and then to Luxembourg. She has now competed in the Olympics three times, wearing the colors of Luxembourg.
Yu Mengyu, another top-notch player, moved to Singapore a decade ago and, this year, played for her adopted country in the Rio Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee’s rules simply require any athlete who has represented one country in an international competition to wait three years before representing a different country.
This is quite different from the rules of the International Table Tennis Federation, which doesn’t allow players to so easily switch allegiances. Thomas Weickert, president of the ITTF, has indicated his desire to see reform in the Olympic rules to make them closer to those of his federation.
The phenomenon of China-born players representing China’s competitors is a tribute to China’s dominant position in the game. The dispersal of Chinese talent to other countries should help to raise standards. It also adds to China’s soft power.
The competition for China-born table tennis players is reminiscent of the situation at the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union and the United States competed in recruiting German scientists. But table tennis is certainly much more benign than the creation of weapons of mass destruction.
This is not to say that China-born players are invincible. There are quite a few cases of Chinese players being defeated. For example, Yang Wang, representing Slovakia, was vanquished by a Nigerian, Quadri Aruna in August; and Kou Lei, playing for the Ukraine, lost to Marcos Freitas of Portugal earlier this year.