Olympic Table Tennis Rules

Your Guide To Olympic Table Tennis Rules

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. 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.

  1. There are five gold medals available: Men’s Singles, Women’s Singles, Mixed Doubles, Men’s Team and Women’s Team.
  2. Each country can enter 2 players into the Men’s and Women’s Singles events, with the format being a straight seeded knockout.
  3. Singles matches are played as the best of 7 games, except for the team events where matches are the best of 5 games.
  4. 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.
  5. .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.

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.

Rally – Defined as the period of time during which the ball is in play, this covers all active playing time when the players are hitting the ball to each other.
Serve – At the start of each rally, one player must hit the ball after throwing it up into the air. Players take it in turns to serve at the start of 2 rallies each until the game reaches 10 – 10 and they alternate servers for every rally.
Spin – During the rally, players will hit the ball and impart spin onto the ball. This will cause the ball to swerve and bounce in different directions, making it more difficult for the opponent to return.
Block – When one player is attacking, the other player may decide to try and place their bat close to the table to make a quick return. They will try and aim these blocks to get the attacker out of position and playing a weaker shot.
Lob – In some of the more entertaining points, players may step back away from the table more than 5 feet and play shots high into the air. This is called a lob and allows the player to get an incredible amount of spin onto the ball.
Smash – If the ball is high in the air, it’s possible for a player to smash down at the ball. These shots are incredibly difficult to return as the ball moves exceptionally quickly. Often, the only option is to move back and try to lob the return.
Topspin – Most players have attacking styles. So, when they hit the ball, they impart a lot of topspin which causes the ball to arc up and drop down quickly onto the other side of the table. This is the most common type of shot seen in Table Tennis.
Backspin – The opposite spin to a topspin, backspin makes the ball float up and longer. This is usually a defensive shot and played by specialist defensive players.

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.

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.

Video credit – Olympics

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.

Table– The Olympic table is the same size as a standard Table Tennis table. That’s a 9 x 5 feet playing surface, 2.5 feet high. Each table can be made of a different kind of wood. For example, the Tokyo Olympic table is made of monarch birch wood.
Ball – The Olympics uses 3-star Table Tennis balls that are 40mm in diameter. These are tested regularly before play to ensure they are completely round without any minor deformities.
Racket – Can be called a paddle or bat, professional plays use rackets that are a central blade of wood (often with carbon fibre) surrounded by layers of sponge and rubber. Different players use rackets that have very different characteristics in terms of spin, speed and control. Each side must be different colours, with one side being black and the other can be a variety of approved colours. Most players still play with one black and one red side.
Net – The net is exactly 6 inches high. This height should be the same across the entire net, although there will be a little more flex in the middle of the net.

Thinking about getting a table yourself? Check out our guide to the room size needed to fit a Table Tennis table.

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.

Towelling – Each player is allowed to have a quick towel break every 6 points starting from 0-0 in each game. This allows them to walk over to their towel, wipe down their hands/face and take a quick breather.
Time-Out – Each player (or doubles pair) is allowed to call 1 time-out period during a full match. This allows them to walk over to their coach and have a 60-second discussion about their strategy for the rest of the game. These are often used tactically at pivotal moments in the match.
Rest Breaks – In between each game, players are entitled to a 1 minute rest period. You will often see players walk over to their coach and talk tactics in between games. There’s a slightly archaic rule that players must leave their rackets on the table during a rest break. This was brought in so players can’t boost or switch their equipment during a match.

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.

Featured image – REUTERS/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS

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