Every 4 years, we all gather together as a planet to watch interesting sports that we’ve virtually ignored for the previous 4 years. Sure, there’s still a lot of focus on popular sports such as athletics or running but the Olympics Games is time for sports like Greco-Roman Wrestling, Trampoline and Canoe Slalom to shine.
One of those lesser-known sports is Table Tennis, which has been an Olympic sport since the Seoul games in 1988.
Whilst most people will have played Ping Pong in their friend’s garage or a bar, that’s very different to watching the top professionals battle it out for an Olympic medal. This is the best time to watch the sport, with modern players featuring heavily in the best table tennis players of all time.
I was lucky enough to see the Olympic Final between Zhang Jike and Wang Hao at London 2012 in person, explaining what was happening to a few of the spectators around me. Hopefully, I can do the same here for people like you all over the world.
To help you understand what’s going on, we’ll get you up to speed will all the Olympic Table Tennis rules and laws you need.
Quick Guide to Olympic Table Tennis Rules
Don’t want to read through a long list of rules? Here are our headlines to get you up to speed.
- There are five gold medals available: Men’s Singles, Women’s Singles, Mixed Doubles, Men’s Team and Women’s Team.
- Each country can enter 2 players into the Men’s and Women’s Singles events, with the format being a straight seeded knockout.
- Singles matches are played as the best of 7 games, except for the team events where matches are the best of 5 games.
- Each game is played up to the best of 11 points, with the winner needing to have a two point lead if the game reaches 10 – 10.
- .Team matches consist of 2 singles matches, a doubles and then 2 further singles matches until one team wins 3 matches.
That’s enough for you to enjoy Table Tennis even if you’ve never played the sport before. It’s worth watching; the speed and skill of the world’s best players is simply awe-inspiring.
One of the most common questions people have during the Olympics is “why are the Chinese so good at Table Tennis“. Check out our article for a detailed answer, but the quick version is that they have the best training methods, coaching and player pool to choose from. It’s (really) hard for any other country to have the same kind of table tennis ecosystem.
Basic Table Tennis Terms
Learn the lingo to impress your mates when Table Tennis is inevitably on the TV at some point during the Olympics. We’ll have you speaking fluent “Table Tennis” in no time.
With that list of terms, you’re able to shout at the TV with the rest of us with phrases like “that was such heavy topspin” and “how has he returned that smash!”. You’re a pro.
Serving In The Olympics
There are no special service rules for players in the Olympics, they are the same across the sport at all levels. However, most people playing Table Tennis are serving illegally without even knowing it!
When you’re watching Table Tennis, keep an eye out on players following these rules:
- Players must throw the ball up vertically at least 16 inches without imparting any spin onto the ball.
- The ball must be struck whilst falling down, above and behind the end line of the table.
- At no point can the ball be obscured from the opponent’s eye-line, including by a hand or clothing.
- The ball must hit the servers side of the table before hitting your opponents side anywhere on the table (in singles) or diagonally across (in doubles).
Most people are familiar with Tennis where players get two attempts at each serve. That does not exist in Table Tennis, with a missed serve directly leading to the loss of a point.
However, in a similarity with Tennis, if the ball hits the net before landing on the opponent’s side, this serve gets to be retaken without losing a point. This is called a “let”. You’ll find this happens quite often in professional Table Tennis as players aim to serve as low across the net as possible to reduce their opponent’s returning options.
Check out our detailed article to learn more about serving rules.
Scoring a Point at the Olympics
It’s the dream of most Table Tennis players worldwide, to win even a single point at the Olympics. Only the best players get to compete at this most prestigious event, so points can be tough to earn.
Scoring a point relies on your opponent being unable to legally return the ball to your side of the table. Remember, the aim of a rally is to return the ball so it bounces off your opponent’s side without hitting anything else (other than the net) first.
That means players win a point for these most common reasons:
- Their opponent fails to make a correct service.
- If the ball touches anything other than the net assembly before being struck by their opponent.
- If their opponent deliberately strikes the ball more than once.
- If their opponent moves the playing surface in any way, or touches the net assembly.
- If their opponent’s free (non-racket) hand touches the playing surface.
If you’re eagle-eyed, you’ll see who’s been awarded the point from each rally by looking at the umpire. They will raise their hand in the direction of the player who earns the point after each rally. Alternatively, you can just wait for it to come up on the digital scoreboard like the rest of us!
I love watching compilations of the best points, some of the skill displayed is simply unbelievable.
Basics of Olympic Table Tennis Equipment
You might be wondering what equipment is being used at the Olympics. With the action moving so quickly, you never quite get a good look at the equipment players are using.
Thinking about getting a table yourself? Check out our guide to the room size needed to fit a Table Tennis table. Alternatively, you can learn why most ping pong paddles have one black and one red rubber.
How Long Does an Olympic Table Tennis Game Last?
Table Tennis is a relatively quick sport to complete matches. There’s a rule called ‘expedite’ that comes into place whenever a single game lasts for more than 10 minutes (and less than 18 points have been played). If expedite is needed, this means that the server must win each point within 13 shots or the point goes to the receiver.
Fortunately, modern Table Tennis is very attack-minded and it’s very rare that the expedite rule is needed. The average table tennis game lasts around 6 minutes.
Taking into account breaks in between games, you can expect an Olympic Table Tennis match to last between 30 – 60 minutes.
Match Breaks and Time-Outs
I just mentioned breaks in between games, however, there are other factors that might make the match last a little bit longer.
Even with these relatively short breaks allowed, matches don’t often take more than an hour to complete.
Enjoy Watching Olympic Table Tennis
The Olympic Games is one of my favourite events ever, as it brings a real focus to sports like Table Tennis that are chronically under-represented otherwise. Looking for more information on rules? We have a post covering all the important Table Tennis rules.
If you have any questions let me know in the comments section below. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy watching the top players battle it out for the ultimate prize – an Olympic Gold Medal.
We’ve got a guide covering everything you need to know about table tennis at the 2024 Olympics.
Featured image – REUTERS/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS
David's been playing Table Tennis since he was 12, earning his first coaching license in 2012. He's played in national team & individual competitions, although he prefers the more relaxed nature of a local league match! After earning his umpiring qualification in England, David moved to Australia and started Racket Insight to share information about the sport he loves.
Blade: Stiga WRB Offensive Classic | Forehand: Calibra LT | Backhand: Xiom Musa
Playstyle: All-Round Attacker