The Chinese Domination of Table Tennis

The Chinese Domination of Table Tennis Explained

Being an Olympic medalist is the greatest feat any athlete can achieve, in most sports. Table Tennis was introduced into the Summer Olympics in 1988 and the Olympic competition immediately become the most prestigious event a player can win . 

Out of the 37 gold medals awarded since its introduction until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 32 have been won by Chinese athletes, and only 5 by the rest of the world. 

In both Olympic team events (men’s and women’s), the Chinese National Team is unbeaten. They have never won anything but gold.

In addition to this, the men’s Chinese National Team hasn’t lost a series in the Table Tennis World Championships ever since 1995. The women’s team also hasn’t lost since 1994.

Because of these achievements, and for many others, 11 out of the 12 best Table Tennis players of all time are Chinese.

You might be wondering: Why is it that they’re so good at Table Tennis? 

Having followed the sport for many years, and from talking to people who have played in China, I can help explain some of the key reasons China dominates Table Tennis.

Why are the Chinese so good at Table Tennis?

There are 5 main reasons why the Chinese National Team is so dominant in Table Tennis competitions. 

These are:

  1. The system
  2. The coaches
  3. The training
  4. The infrastructure
  5. The players

The system

Chinese Womens Team after Winning Olympic Gold

China has the most methodical and efficient Table Tennis system in the world. 

The system is efficient because of its ruthlessness. Only the most talented and driven players will succeed, while most players are removed along the way. This way, they can focus all their resources on only the best talents.

Potential players are scouted starting from a very young age. Even 5-year-olds are prospects for the Chinese National Team. 

We heard an anecdote that coaches would go into “kindergarten” classes and ask kids to throw a ball into a bucket from a few feet away. A really basic test to identify levels of physical coordination. Any child who landed three in a row would be asked to join the table tennis club.

When talented kids are found, they are transferred to Table Tennis schools, where they can focus on playing. Here is a video of what a Table Tennis school training looks like:

We can see that this training is incredibly tough, especially for children. Realistically, this is one of the main reasons why the Chinese are always on top. 

This level of intensity goes on for all of their careers, so it’s best that they get used to the hard training and pressure from the get-go.

Out of these kids in the video, only a few, if any, will progress through the system. 

They’ll compete against the best kids from other schools, then the best from their province, and the best in the whole country. After that, they’ll start competing internationally. If they fail at any stage, they’re out. 

Potential players are mostly removed from the system because they “aren’t good enough”, even if they’re great players in their own right. Lots of these players are scattered around the world playing for many different national teams and partaking in pro leagues. 

Just because they aren’t good enough to make the National Team doesn’t mean they aren’t excellent players. At the Rio 2016 Olympics, there were at least 44 Chinese-born Table Tennis players, only 6 of them playing for the Chinese National Team.

Out of the millions that play, only the best 6 go to the Olympics (3 men and 3 women).

The coaches

Even the best players eventually have to retire. When they stop playing, most of them become coaches for the newer generations. This is how the cycle goes on.

Chinese coaches are as passionate and hard-working as the players. They know what it takes to reach the top, and they’ll make sure their students get there. 

These coaches have tutored generations upon generations of legends. Their job is to teach the players even the smallest of details.

Luo Guoliang Training Ma Long
Photo: Xinhua

They have seen the game develop over the years, and are constantly analyzing their players’ matches and training sessions looking for ways to strengthen their game. 

They are also tactical masterminds. The best coaches know every matchup and how it might play out. It’s quite common to see top Chinese players lose the first set or two against international players, then come back to win the match by a wide margin. 

This is explained because their coach tells them the best tactics between games. Chinese players are trained to have no weaknesses, so they can apply almost anything their coach tells them.

Players do what their coaches tell them, and the match suddenly becomes one-sided. This is the power of the Chinese coaches.

The training

Chinese Player Serving
Photo: Reuters 

The Chinese have developed their training methods over the years and the results are evident.

Over many years of training, players develop a high degree of commitment and professionalism. They can spend up to 8 hours a day training, and top players have been training at a high level ever since they were children.

Chinese players simply train harder than the rest. Not only do they train harder, but their training is also more efficient because of the quality of their coaches and the exercises they do.

To get the most out of their training sessions, they have perfected a variety of methods, which they use depending on the players’ needs. 

For example, they have different training partners for each player and every situation. Top players have special training partners so that they don’t have to share exercises. They have all the training time to focus on themselves.

If a top Chinese player is going to play a defender in a tournament, then they get a provincial-level player with a similar defensive style to train with him. 

These provincial players are just a step below the national team and could be easily ranked within the top 100 in the world.

Another surprising thing they do is that to train one top player is that they pair him up against two provincial-level training partners. One hits forehands, and the other hits backhands. Combined, they are even better.

This way, top players can train against even stronger opposition than the best there is out there.

Also, before every important competition, the Chinese team performs a special “closed training” for around 2 months, and it isn’t allowed to film. Nobody knows what goes on in these closed training sessions but them.

There are surely lots of incredible training methods we don’t even know about!

Added to all this, there’s also regular multiball every day with corrections from the coaching staff, and physical training to increase the strength and speed of the players. 

Over the last few years, they have also included sport psychologists in the mix. 

The team schedules reunions between the psychologists, the coaches, and the players, so that they can solve any problem the players may have, and prepare them mentally for competition.

The infrastructure

The Table Tennis infrastructure China has is unparalleled. 

Table Tennis is their national sport. It’s the people’s pride. A reported 10 million people play competitive ping-pong regularly in China, and 300 million play on occasion.

To accommodate these 300 million players, there’s more than enough infrastructure. It is reported that there is 1 table for every 7 people.

This makes it so that the average level is quite high, and those who are dedicated enough can achieve the level they want. Clubs packed with amazing players and great coaches are everywhere in China.

Table Tennis brings people together. This is especially true in China, where almost everyone will join in on a game of ping pong. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. As long as you have your own trusty racket, you’re welcome to play! 

Table Tennis is played at home, at school, at clubs, in parks, in family reunions, even at work! 

Being the national sport, Table Tennis receives lots of funding from the government. This is one of the only countries where you can find Table Tennis specific schools, community Table Tennis parks, and tables scattered everywhere.

Table Tennis is incredibly easy to access in China. Just grab your racket, go to a park, and there will be lots of people eager to play with you!

The players

The last factor is the most important one. These are China’s heroes, who fill their people with pride when they win virtually every important tournament. The players!

To play at the highest level, you have to be special. Raw talent alone doesn’t cut it.

Players need to be motivated, confident, self-disciplined, professional, perfectionist, humble enough to take criticism, have an incredibly high sense of focus, thrive under pressure, and have an inner desire to be the best.

As if that wasn’t enough, they also need to be athletic, not prone to injuries, and incredibly talented. Only those who have all of these perks are eligible to be part of the Chinese Team. 

They sacrifice everything for the sport. Gifted children are moved away from their families to practice Table Tennis almost 24/7 for the next several years of their life. 

Chinese National Team players are champions by nature, who have followed their dream through thick and thin. 

Chinese recruiters are looking for this set of traits all the time, even in little children, to secure the future of the National Team. Talented and driven players who would do anything to win for their country.

Having explained all of the factors why China is the most dominant Table Tennis country in the world, you might be wondering, how come Table Tennis is so popular in China in the first place?

Why Table Tennis is the most popular sport in China

Simply put: Because the government said so. It’s a fascinating story.

It all started back in1949. As China gained more and more economic and political power, its leaders, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, both avid Table Tennis players, realized that the country would also benefit from winning global sporting competitions.

After all, most nations display the strength of their people through sporting feats. Seeing national athletes succeed gives citizens happiness and a sense of belonging. 

After having determined they wanted to excel in sports, they decided to select a national sport in which they could focus most of their resources.

When choosing the national sport, they were dealing with several limitations:

  1. Over half of China is uninhabitable due to the terrain (hills, mountains, and forests). The habitable terrain they have must therefore be used to construct apartment buildings. 
  2. China has water scarcity problems.
  3. The country had high wealth inequality and was suffering economic challenges.

They came up with Table Tennis.

Table Tennis is the perfect sport for China because:

  1. Tables don’t take up as much space like say, a soccer or basketball pitch.
  2. Table Tennis doesn’t require water like soccer, tennis, or other sports (most sports fields need to be watered regularly).
  3. Anyone can play regardless of their age, physical condition, or economic situation (rackets are incredibly cheap in China and there are public parks with lots of tables).

They also thought Table Tennis could bring people together and help China connect with other Table Tennis playing nations.

10 years later, in 1959, Rong Guotuan was the first Chinese World Table Tennis Champion. The following 3 WTTC editions were won by his teammate, Zhuang Zedong.

This was the start of Chinese dominance in Table Tennis. 

But the story doesn’t end here. Table Tennis was also incredibly influential when it comes to Chinese political diplomacy.

China entered the Korean war in 1950, and, as a consequence, the US started viewing China as an aggressor. After 20 years where there were no political advancements between the two opposing countries, the 1971 WTTC came to turn things around.

When the US Table Tennis team was in Japan for the tournament, they received an invitation to visit China. The Table Tennis team was the first US delegation to enter the Chinese capital since 1949.

The most memorable anecdote from this trip was world champion Zhuang Zedong gifting the US athlete Glenn Cowan a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountain.

Ping Pong Diplomacy

This was a huge step forwards for diplomatic relations between China and the US, as they were considered fierce enemies at the time. This exchange paved the way to achieve a more amicable relationship going forward.

Can anybody beat the Chinese at Table Tennis?

Table Tennis in China is not just a sport, it’s a matter of honor, history, and pride. For some, Table Tennis is no less than religion.

This is why they are the most dominant in the sport. They have the toughest system, the best infrastructure, and both players and coaches sacrifice everything they have to make sure China stays on top.

I’m not sure any other country in the world can beat that. All we can do is hope a generational talent emerges from somewhere else in the world, disrupting the sheer consistency of China’s winning machine.

I hope you feel just as much appreciation for the Chinese Table Tennis story as I did when writing this article!

Alvaro’s been playing Table Tennis since he was 15 and is now ranked within the top 200 in his native Argentina. He loves to compete in provincial tournaments and is always looking for ways to improve. Alvaro made his favourite memories with a racket in hand, and he joined the RacketInsight team to share his passion with other players!

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