Why China is so staggeringly good at table tennis
At least 44 table tennis players in Rio were Chinese-born, even though only 6 of them are playing for China, as the New York Times reported this week.
China went on to take gold in all four table tennis events at the 2016 Summer Olympics, meaning it has won 28 of 32 gold medals since the sport was introduced in 1988.
How is China so good at this sport? It's pretty simple really.
China has way more table tennis players than any other country.
This much is clear when you consider China's unmatched population of 1.4 billion and how extremely popular the sport is there.
The country has embraced table tennis since at least the 1950s, when Chairman Mao declared it the national sport. For the communist leader, it was a logical choice—a sport that could be played cheaply without much space and one that wasn't particularly popular in the West.
Today there are said to be tables in nearly every park, while almost every school has a team that trains regularly, and table tennis champions are famous.
"In China, there is a joke, do not say you play table tennis well, because you do not know among your friends, whether there is some guy who is retired from Province team," Mark Luo writes on Quora.
A reported 10 million Chinese play competitive ping-pong regularly, with some 300 million who play on occasion. Although we don't have numbers on the rest of the world, we can assume no one comes close.
Table tennis also seems to be a sport where body type matters relatively little—as opposed to, say, basketball and sprinting—meaning that a higher share of those players might stand a chance at high level play.
China has an extremely intensive training program .
The country begins recruiting table tennis talent at a young age and then does everything possible to make them succeed.
Take it from former pro Cheng Yinghua who, as described in a USATT article by Larry Hodges, was put in a specialized school at age 5 after testing highly for racket sport skills. According to the same article:
—China is ruthless in selecting its national team, focusing all its efforts on players likely to medal now or in the future, rather than blindly including all the top players at a given time.
—Chinese players train for at least 7 hours a day. Top players work with specialized practice partners and sometimes even play against two at a time—something you won't see on most teams.
—Chinese teams have extensive strategic analysis about competition around the world and are pioneers in new table techniques.
Of course, China has famously intense training programs for lots of sports. Why it pays off so well here is because of that unmatched pool of high level players.