Olympics: China unbeatable in table tennis; some are worried
LONDON (AP) - China is unbeatable in table tennis, and even Chinese officials are worried about the dominance.
China swept all four gold medals again at the London Olympics, duplicating its results from Beijing four years ago. It was barely challenged, and when it was it usually involved another player born in mainland China, but who was playing for Singapore, or Hong Kong or even South Korea.
Only three nations on the women's side in London were without a China-born player, or player with Chinese roots - Egypt, North Korea and Japan. Even the Republic of Congo had a China-born player.
China men's coach Liu Guoliang, a double gold medalist in 1996, knows the game needs more competition.
"I'd be happy to see the overall standard improve," Liu said. "But of course, I want Chinese players to stay on top. ... But we think others can achieve great success." Not without China's help they can't.
Mr Adham Sharara, president of the International Tennis Table Federation, said he has pushed Chinese officials to open up their state-run sports schools to non-Chinese.
"Their national training centre is still closed, but we're trying to convince them to open it," Mr Sharara said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's like the US with basketball or Canada with ice hockey. If you keep it only for yourself - you win everything and nobody else can win - then everybody else loses interest.
"China itself has a responsibility to do something, and we have been working a lot with them over the last couple of years." As it is now, bronze or silver is like gold for all but the Chinese.
Players in London smiled and sobbed just to reach the podium, often celebrating while Chinese on the top rung of the podium seemed relieved it was over, lifting enormous pressure from a billion fans at home who expected gold in the national pastime.
China won gold and silver in both men's and women's singles, and then swept the two team events.
In women's singles, Li Xiaoxia took gold and teammate Ding Ning took silver. That allowed a bronze for Feng Tianwei of Singapore, who was born in China.
Zhang Jike won gold on the men's side, and teammate Wang Hao got silver. This left Dimitrij Octcharov of Germany with a bronze.
The ITTF changed the rules after Beijing, allowing only two entries in singles from any one nation. That automatically took two medals from China - it swept all three in men and women's singles in Beijing - but didn't stop the gold haul.
China has won 24 of 28 gold medals in table tennis since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1988.
Sharara said he's hoping for more competition in Rio de Janeiro in four years, encouraged by young players like 16-year-old Ariel Hsing of the United States, who pushed the eventual champion Li before losing in six tight games in the best-of-seven format - 11-4, 9-11, 11-6, 6-11, 11-8, 11-9.
Japan's 19-year-old Kasumi Ichikawa and 23-year-old Ai Fukuhara picked up silver in the team event. The young Japanese women look like a serious threat to China.
"It will change in the next four or five years," Mr Sharara said. "You will see other teams will win. Otherwise, of course, it's very disturbing to have the same - whether it's China or the US - winning for too long." In the run-up to the games, London mayor Boris Johnson often repeated that "pingpong" was coming home to the London Olympics, referring to the game's roots in Victorian England.
It was a successful return. The 6,000-seat venue at the ExCel arena was sold out - or a near-sellout - for every session.
"In Beijing expectations were very high," Mr Sharara said. "Coming here the expectation was very low. We expected the first few days there would be no spectators at all, and people would be interested once we reached the quarterfinals. What amazed me is from the first day there wasn't one session that wasn't full.
"I feel better here because our sport was exposed to a lot of people who didn't know it before. Here it was mostly new people that saw table tennis." Mr Sharara promised glitz for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
"They want Rio to be different," he said. "We want to add more entertainment there, and what better place than Rio to have some dancers, some music and entertainment between matches." A gold medal for someone other than China would also improve the show.