Table tennis' premier event, the Olympics, one of the easiest
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Here's a secret about table tennis. The world's most prestigious tournament, the Olympics, is also one of the easiest.
The reason for this paradox, like much about the modern version of the sport, can be linked to a single force: China.
In what's widely seen as an attempt to keep China from complete domination, table tennis officials have allowed each nation at the Olympics only two entries in men's singles and two entries in women's singles.
This levels the playing field, giving other countries a chance for a medal — because of China's perennial strength, it's likely to be bronze this year, as in past Olympics. But it also waters down the competition, keeping hard-to-beat players out of the mix and filling what should be the sport's showcase tournament with weaker players.
"The quality is very low," said Massimo Costantini, a former Olympian who coaches the U.S. table tennis team. "I understand. It gives others chances. But it's fake. It's not the reality."
Table tennis officials are sensitive about the matter.
They point out that other sports also restrict the number of athletes from each nation. Other countries also dominate particular sports, as China does table tennis; the Americans in certain track events, for instance. But high-level table tennis, outside Asia and parts of Europe, is less popular, and so there's worry about Chinese domination killing interest in other parts of the world.
The Olympics are not only for the best players, said Thomas Weikert, president of the International Table Tennis Federation, but must work to "have the whole family here."
"Other countries have to get a medal chance, so for the image of table tennis it's not so bad," Weikert said.
Of course, it's not so good for the high-level players who don't make the Olympics from European and Asian powers, but it is China that feels the most pain.
Making the two-person singles Olympic team for China is hard because there are so many world-class players who could compete for gold if given the chance.
Perhaps the most glaring example this year is the current No. 1 for women, Liu Shiwen, who wasn't chosen for Chinese singles, though she'll play in the team competition. But the men's No. 2, Fan Zhendong, and No. 3, Xu Xin, also both missed out on Chinese singles.
Competition, especially in the later rounds at the Olympics, is still fierce, but the two-player-per-nation rule usually gives an easier path to the sport's stronger players who manage to make their national teams.
Without lots of strong players from the traditional powers, there's more easy prey; if those players can be dealt with in the middle rounds, top players can put themselves on the brink of contending for a medal.
Dimitrij Ovtcharov, the No. 5-ranked German and bronze medalist in London, acknowledges that it's much tougher to win the world championships, for instance, which is filled with Chinese and Japanese stars, than to be Olympic champion. But, he said, most fans don't know and don't care.
"If you are Olympic champion you are Olympic champion. Nobody cares how many Chinese you played," Ovtcharov said. "It's about the title, and the Olympic title is more prestigious than the world championship title."