Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and the star players that helped them light up the Olympic Games. In the second part of our series, we look back at the People's Republic of China's exceptional table tennis team.
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How it started
Table tennis, also known as ping pong, has been considered as the national sport of the People’s Republic of China.
Since table tennis became an official Olympic medal sport at Seoul 1988, Chinese athletes have dominated the sport winning 28 of a possible 32 gold medals up to Rio 2016. Since 1996, China has only missed out on gold once - in the men's singles at Athens 2004.
At Beijing 2008, new team events were introduced that replaced the men's and women's doubles. But the golden momentum of China's table tennis team continued. They won all of the gold medals at Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016, just as they had done at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.
The Chinese table tennis team have not only dominated the podium of the Olympic Games, but also reigned supreme at the World Championships and World Cups.
From the beginning of the new millennium, there have only been a few occasions (2003, 2013, 2017) when the nation did not manage to have a clean sweep of gold at the World Table Tennis Championships. In the same period, it was only once in 2010 - when the Singaporean women's team beat China to take the title - that they didn't win both the team event at the World Team Table Tennis Championships.
In the annually held ITTF World Cup, Chinese male athletes have missed out on the title five times in the last two decades while the women's players have never lost it since the inauguration of the Women's World Cup in 1996. The Team World Cup started in 1990, and on three occasions (1990, 1994, 1995) have China missed out on the gold medal in either men's or women's event.
The biggest win
From Seoul 1988 to Rio 2016, China have won 53 medals including 28 golds, 17 silvers and 8 bronzes in table tennis.
At Atlanta 1996 (4 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze), Sydney 2000 (4 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze) and Beijing 2008 (4 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze) they have won 8 medals - the most medals they've won in a single Games.
In those three Games, besides topping the podium in every event, they nearly did a first-second (gold-silver) as well, which proved why China had been called the powerhouse in pingpong.
The key players
Nine Chinese table tennis players have dominated the sport for years and achieved the table tennis grand slam (winning the single event title of the Olympic Games, World Championships and World Cup), DENG Yaping is the first one of them.
Deng, who've won both single and double gold medals at Barcelona 1992, repeated the feat at Atlanta 1996 and was the first Chinese athlete to win four Olympic Table Tennis gold medals. She is also the first of only two athletes that defended an Olympic singles title - the other one is ZHANG Yining.
Zhang, who topped the Olympic podium at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, is the only player in the history of table tennis that have achieved the grand slam twice. Apart from her two Olympic golds, she is also a four-time world cup single winner and two-time world champion.
In the men's team, the current head coach of the Chinese national team LIU Guoliang was the first Chinese male player to achieve the grand slam. He started with the Olympic gold medal at Atlanta 1996 and in the same year, he stepped onto the top podium for the world cup. In 1999 he rounded off the grand slam with a world championship title.
Then London 2012 gold medallist ZHANG Jike was the quickest to reach this feat, taking just 445 days (between 2011 and 2012) to win an Olympic, World Cup and World Championship gold.
What happened next?
In Tokyo 2020, mixed double was added to the Olympic programme for the first time, and as a result, there will be five gold medals up for grabs.
China have qualified for all the five events, although the composition of the national team still needs to be decided.
Making a selection among all the top-level athletes has always been a mix of emotions for the head coach of the national team and this time it's up to LIU Guoliang to decide who gets to be in the squad.
Aiming for the top podium at Tokyo 2020 once again, the host nation, Japan, see China as their biggest threat with HARIMOTO Tomokazu and ITO Mima likely to be the top contenders. Chinese athletes who have a better performance against Japanese athletes will have more possibility to make the team.
In this case, 20-year-old SUN Yingsha, who is current world No.3, could get a better chance at being selected. During the ITTF Women's World Cup which finished last week, she defeated two Japanese players including Ito, before losing the final to teammate CHEN Meng, who is currently the top-ranked female athlete. It has been predicted that both Chen and Sun will represent China in the women's single event at Tokyo 2020.
For the men's event, world No.1 FAN Zhendong, who last weekend became the first person to win the men's world cup three consecutive times, is in top form. During the past 20 days, he has defeated world No.2 MA Long - a three-time Olympic gold medalist who has also achieved the grand slam - twice (National Championships and ITTF Men's World Cup finals). Meanwhile, 32-year-old Ma defeated up-and-comer Harimoto during the world cup semi-final before losing to Fan, also adding his possibility to be in Tokyo next year.
In the coming days, the ITTF Finals (19 - 22 November) and WTT Macau (25 -29 November) will take place in the People's Republic of China, which will provide more inspiration for Liu Guoliang to make the decision for sure.
Watch the video below to see why table tennis is so popular in China.