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When it comes to table tennis, China sets the global benchmark. Despite its British origin, the sport is extremely popular in the Asian country, which will arrive at the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in pole position in the sport’s medal tables.
In the Olympic context, the numbers are striking. Of the 28 gold medals that have been up for grabs since table tennis joined the Olympic programme at the Seoul Games in 1988, 24 have been won by Chinese athletes, most notably Wang Nan, the winner of four golds and one silver. South Korea (three golds) and Sweden (one gold) are the other countries that have produced Olympic champions in the sport.
“Table tennis is China’s leading sport,” said Brazilian Hugo Hoyama, who has participated in six editions of the Olympic Games, from Barcelona 1992 to London 2012. “The (Chinese) athletes have all the resources at their disposal and the level of training is extremely high. The Chinese team has around 50 players, who work with trained sparring partners to simulate the characteristics of their main rivals, and the competition to join this group is very great. For this reason, many Chinese people end up naturalising in other countries in order to be able to compete in the main competitions and achieve good results.”
At the Paralympic Games, which have featured table tennis since Rome 1960, China is also top of the leader board, with 85 gold medals. Germany, whose achievements are split between the former East Germany (56 golds) and the current Federal Republic of Germany (34 golds), is one of the few countries to stand up to China’s domination. France (47 golds), Austria (35), and Great Britain and South Korea (both 34) are other powers in the sport.
“China dominates Olympic table tennis and demonstrates the same strength on the Paralympic scene,” said three-time Paralympic champion Natalia Partyka, from Poland. “At the last two editions of the Paralympic Games, I played in the finals against Chinese athletes and I believe that China’s players will be present in most of the finals at the Rio 2016 Games.”
Brazilians Luiz Silva and Welder Knaf (in green) playing in the finals of the Beijing Paralympic Games against a French duo (photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
It was with an unforgettable victory over the Asian superpower in which Brazilian table tennis won its only medal in the history of the Paralympic Games. At Beijing 2008, Welder Knaf and Luiz Algacir Silva, who died from cancer in 2009, beat a Chinese duo in the semi-finals and ended up with silver after their defeat by the French in the class 3 finals.
“It was the most striking moment of my career,” said Knaf. “Defeating a doubles team from China, the country that dominates table tennis, in the Beijing semi-finals, was something nobody expected. I have many photos of that moment decorating my bedroom. Since then, the level of Brazilian Paralympic table tennis has improved a lot.
“We are achieving good results in the main international competitions more frequently and I think Brazil has everything it needs to fight for a medal at the Rio Games.” After winning the Slovenia Open in 2013, Welder will dedicate a large share of this year to technical training.
The format of table tennis
In the Olympic Games, table tennis has men’s and women’s individual and team competitions. The matches are divided into 11-point games, with the winner requiring at least a two-point lead. The individual matches are played as the best of seven games. The team matches consist of four individual matches and one doubles match.
In Paralympic table tennis, the participants are divided into 11 different classes, in accordance with their impairment of movement. The scoring rules are the same as in the Olympic competitions, and the participants can play with orthoses, prostheses, crutches and even high-heeled footwear.