SINGAPORE: In the unpredictable world of Olympic sports, there are few things which can be said with near certainty. China winning table tennis gold medals is one of them.
Since the sport was introduced into the Summer Games in 1988, China’s players have won 28 out of the 32 gold medals.
In the last three Olympics – Beijing, London and Rio – they swept all the gold medals on offer.
China has such an abundance of top players that its exports playing for other countries, including Singapore, regularly pick up silver and bronze medals.
Such dominance is not normal. No other country has held such a stranglehold over a sport, or even comes close to it.
South Korea’s strength in archery is one of the closest. It has won 23 out of 40 gold medals since modern archery was introduced in the Olympics in 1972.
But their win percentage of 57.5 is far from the bull’s eye mark of the Chinese paddlers, who have managed 87.5 per cent of gold medals.
And in case you’re wondering, such dominance is not normal even for China. The country has done superbly in diving and badminton, but they remain a distance from the supremacy of their table tennis compatriots.
China has won 71 per cent of the gold medals in diving since participating in the 1984 Games, and a rather humble 53 per cent of the badminton titles.
Clearly, China’s state-run sports system of a large talent pool, early scouting, and ruthless internal culling are not the only explanations for the unique success of its table tennis players.
There is something special about the sport in the world’s most populous country.
Chinese schoolboys show off their table tennis skills during a practice session at a sports school in Beijing in 1996. (Photo: AFP)
A critical person behind the sport’s unique status in China is a filmmaker from London named Ivor Montagu.
The scion of a Jewish banking dynasty in England developed a strong interest in table tennis, codified the rules of the sport, and set up the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) in the 1920s.
He was also a fervent communist who believed that table tennis could help spread the ideology throughout the world.
The simple game was perfectly suited for the proletariat during a workday and the “balls were so light they flew best in windowless rooms”, meaning workers could play table tennis in factories, wrote Nicholas Griffin in The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World.
When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over China in 1949, Montagu was convinced that table tennis could help the new People’s Republic connect to the rest of the world.
So while the rest of the sporting world, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC), continued to recognise the Republic of China, the ITTF had the foresight to invite Beijing to join in 1951.
Chinese athletes carrying a huge portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong on Oct 1, 1955 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing celebrating National Day. (Photo: AFP)
MAO’S SPIRITUAL NUCLEAR WEAPON
For the young People’s Republic, which was ostracised by much of the rest of the world, Montagu’s welcome was a godsend.
The CCP’s leaders like Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were already playing the sport and Mao quickly declared table tennis the “national sport”, or guo qiu, of the country. That status remains till today.
In 1959, the country made a major breakthrough. Rong Guotuan won the men’s singles title in the World Table Tennis Championships in Germany.
He was the first Chinese world champion of any sport since the founding of the People’s Republic. Japan, the powerhouse of the sport at the time and arch enemy of China after World War II, swept all the other titles, making Rong’s win extra sweet.
National pride soared and the propaganda value of the victory took on extra significance since it occurred during the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic’s founding.
Table tennis became the symbol of China’s rise after a century of humiliation by the Western powers and Japan.
Mao congratulated Rong personally and hailed table tennis as China’s “spiritual nuclear weapon”. China would successfully test its first actual nuclear weapon only five years later in 1964.
WHEN DOMINATION BEGINS
The sport truly took off in China. The low-maintenance game was a perfect fit for the impoverished nation.
All that was needed was a concrete slab acting as a table and a row of bricks standing in as a net.
Cramped Chinese urban neighbourhoods had no problems finding space for it, as compared to a tennis court, for instance.
In the countryside, peasants could easily rustle up a table, two paddles and a ball for hours of low-cost enjoyment.
Most Chinese who grew up in that era knew only one sport: table tennis. For example, former top leaders like Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao showcased their ping pong abilities during visits to Japan.
China grew stronger in the sport and began winning more world titles in the early 1960s at the expense of Japan.
The growth was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when top players were persecuted by the Red Guards. Rong committed suicide in 1968 after a period spent in detention.
An American delegation of tennis table players pose with Chinese communist leaders in April 1971. (Photo: AFP)
PING PONG DIPLOMACY
But China bounced back in the 1970s and an epochal event further cemented table tennis’ special place in the hearts of the Chinese people.
In the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, a 19-year-old hippie American player named Glenn Cowan boarded a bus carrying the Chinese team.
The Chinese version of this story says that Cowan went up the bus mistakenly. Cowan said he was invited aboard by the Chinese.
An American tennis table player trains with a Chinese tennis table player in Beijing in April 1971. (Photo: AFP)
George Brathwaite returns a shot to China's Liang Geliang on Jul 24, 1997 at the UN in New York during an exhibition match celebrating the 25th anniversary of "Ping Pong Diplomacy", which marked the start of a US-China dialogue initiated by the Nixon administration in 1971 and 1972. (Photo: AFP)
Regardless, the top Chinese player Zhuang Zedong, who had already won three world singles titles, approached Cowan on the bus with a gift.
The exchange gave Beijing the opening it was looking for to seek détente with the United States, its erstwhile Cold War adversary.
Mao seized on it and invited the American ping pong team to visit China. The US paddlers became the first Americans to officially visit the People’s Republic.
This famous ping pong diplomacy paved the way for US President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China the next year.
Chairman Mao Zedong (L) welcomes US President Richard Nixon on Feb 22, 1972. President Nixon urged China to join the United States in a "long march together" on different roads to world peace. (Photo: AFP)
By 1979, the US transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The IOC followed suit the same year, opening the way for China to participate at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics for the first time.
In more ways than one, table tennis was the vehicle which helped China to reach out to the world during and after decades of isolation.
This has earned the sport an exalted status in the country, drawing resources and attention in a manner which surpasses other games.
When Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008, then President Hu attended the women’s table tennis team final between China and Singapore and knew all the details of the players on both sides.
Barring a major change in politics in China, such devotion and sentimentality to the sport from the highest echelon to the grassroots, is likely to continue.
Expect China to reign supreme in table tennis for many more years.
* The writer is author of When the Party Ends, winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2016, and former China bureau chief of The Straits Times. He is also the founding partner of The Nutgraf, a writing and communications agency.