China’s overwhelming domination of table tennis at the Olympics will likely continue in Rio, but there’s drama about just which member of the talented Chinese national team will prevail.
Starting on Saturday, there will also be intense competition among the rest of the world for bronze and, just maybe, a surprise gold or silver.
Among the other stories that could captivate: A 16-year-old American looks to make his name internationally, war-torn Syria gets its first Olympic table tennis entry and two female Paralympian athletes will also compete in Olympic matches.
Even if it’s another largely all-China affair, fans who tune in will be treated to a mesmerizing mix of wicked spins and powerful slams, with players rocketing the small, lightweight, white plastic ball at each other in a blur of slicing parabolas.
Here’s a look at what to expect from the world’s most popular racket sport, otherwise known as pingpong:
THE CHINA SCRAMBLE
Just qualifying for a Chinese team that has taken home 24 of 28 gold medals since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988, and all the golds at the past two Games, is a major achievement.
For instance, the current women’s world No. 1, Liu Shiwen, didn’t get one of her country’s two spots for singles, though she will be part of the team competition.
Instead, it will be London champion Li Xiaoxia, now ranked No. 5, and reigning world champion and world No. 2 Ding Ning, who won silver in London, going to Rio in singles.
For the men’s side, current world No. 2 Fan Zhendong, a rising young star, and world No. 3 Xu Xin didn’t make the Chinese singles team.
London champion Zhang Jike, who was named after Brazilian soccer star Zico, will go to Rio in singles, despite being ranked No. 4 in the world and putting in erratic performances since London. Zhang, for instance, lost in the first round of a June tournament in South Korea to a player from Taiwan ranked No. 63 at the time.
The other Chinese man for singles will be Ma Long, the current world No. 1, who lost in the finals of that South Korean tournament to Xu Xin.
THE REST OF THE WORLD
Although still a source of national pride, some see a dip in table tennis’ popularity as China has become richer, more confident and more curious about other sports.
The rest of the world, meanwhile, has been working to catch up. They’ve been helped by a rule that limits each country to only two players for each singles event; that gives everyone else a chance for medals, though mostly of the bronze variety.
While China has the top three women’s spots currently in the world rankings, there are three Japanese in the top 10, as well as one player each from Germany and Singapore.
For men, China takes the top four spots, but after that comes players from Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Belarus and South Korea.
The United States has never medaled in table tennis, but there is excitement about the future. Kanak Jha, now 16, was the youngest male to qualify for table tennis in Olympic history when he made the U.S. team in April while still 15.
Two female Paralympian table tennis athletes will also compete in the Olympic games a first, according to table tennis officials.
Natalia Partyka of Poland, who was born without a right hand and forearm, has been in the past two Summer Olympics, in Beijing and London. Partyka has also won gold three times at the Paralympics.
It is the first Olympics for Melissa Tapper of Australia, whose right arm has nerve damage.
Syria will send its first player to an Olympic table tennis tournament, despite a long, calamitous war.
Heba Allejji will represent Syria in Rio after being awarded a special place in the table tennis competition.
The 19-year-old is currently ranked No. 713 in the world.
She has competed in international competitions before, including the 2016 Asian Olympic qualifiers and the World Tour Qatar Open.
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