One in every five table tennis Olympians is Chinese

The World Table Tennis Championships are getting underway on April 26 in Suzhou (China). World Championships in the sport were first held in 1926, but it took until 1988 for the sport to make it to the Olympics. From the first Games at Seoul, the sport has been dominated by China.

Deng Yaping, who won back-to-back singles and doubles titles in 1992-1996.

This is of course not a secret: you just have to look at the medal tables. Of the 88 Olympic medals awarded in this sport, 47 have been won by China (53%), but with 24 of the 28 gold medals (86%) going to the People’s Republic.

China’s dominance is so large that also the IOC and the ITTF (the IF for table tennis) have taken notice. In 2008, the men’s and women’s doubles events were discontinued in favor of team events. This change ensures that China can win at most one medal in those events. To date, however, China has won all four team golds awarded at the Olympics. In 2012, further regulations were introduced to limit the amount of Chinese medals. After China sweeping all six singles medals in Beijing, the athlete quotum per nation was reduced to two, ensuring at least one non-Chinese medal in each singles event. In London, the Chinese table tennis players achieved a maximum score, occupying both finals.

The vast amount of Chinese talent competing for an ever smaller chance to compete in the Olympics has driven many Chinese players abroad. Even three of the thirty-six Chinese players that did manage to represent their motherland at the Olympics have competed for another nation. Wei Qingguang, 1988 gold medalist, returned to the 2000 Games as Seiko Iseki (Japan). Another 1988 champion, Chen Jing, represented ‘the other China’, Chinese Taipei in 1996-2000, while Barcelona silver medalist Jun Gao competed under the US flag three times.

Jun Gao (previously competing for China) is playing for the US here against Xue Wu, another native Chinese who represents the Dominican Republic

However, there are just the tip of the iceberg. Of the 666 (!) Olympic table tennis competitors, there are 630 that have never represented the People’s Republic of China. However, at least 91(*) of them have been born in China. Combined with the Chinese competitors, this means that about a fifth of all table tennis Olympians are Chinese!

These 91 Chinese competitors represented 24 different nations, mostly these five:

Nation Competitors
Hong Kong 11
Canada 10
Singapore 9
Australia 8
United States 7

The Singaporese table tennis team that won silver in Beijing 2008 consisted entirely of naturalized Chinese players

Hong Kong is not a surprising entry on the list, considering it is a Special Administrative Region of China, but with its own delegation at the Olympics. Singapore has a large community of ethnic Chinese, and has set up the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme to grow the pool of national athletes. Three Chinese-born women made up the team that won silver for Singapore in 2008, the city state’s greatest Olympic achievement (the country had won one earlier silver medal back in 1956). Canada, the US and Australia have of course been popular emigration destinations for Chinese, and some of the “Chinese” Olympians from these nations moved there at a young age or to marry, and not just to gain different passport and compete internationally.

(*) The actual number could be even bigger than 91. For a large number of table tennis competitors, we don’t have birth data, and this includes 11 Hong Kong players, but also some other possible Chinese, such as the Swiss player Dai-Yong Tu.

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