Rio de Janeiro: The Rio Olympics table tennis in five key points:
+ There are at least two Olympic certainties: the torch will burn and China will sweep table tennis gold. China has won 24 of 28 gold medals in its national sport since its 1988 Olympic debut, plus more silver and bronze than you can shake a paddle at, and both team titles since that format launched in 2008. After China swept all singles medals in Beijing in 2008, a rule change now limits countries to two contestants per gender to give others a shot at the podium. So the smart money is on a Chinese 1-2 in both men’s and women’s singles, with Japan, Germany, Chinese Taipei or South Korea fighting for bronze.
+ China is so loaded that it snubbed world number one Liu Shiwen for the Rio women’s singles, citing recent inconsistency. No problem. London 2012 gold and silver medallists Liu Xiaoxia and Ding Ning will lead the charge instead. Watch for 15-year-old Mima Ito of Japan, who defeated Ding in an April qualifying tournament. China’s men are world number one Ma Long and London gold medallist Zhang Jike who, incidentally, was named after Brazilian soccer legend Zico.
+ The August 6-17 competition at the RioCentro exhibition centre features four medal possibilities: men’s and women’s singles and team competitions. The team event features up to 16 three-person national squads competing in a rapid-fire succession of singles and doubles matches with five-minute breaks in between. All contests are single-elimination.
+ Table tennis showcases lightning reflexes and eye-hand coordination, with elite players smacking the ball up to 160km per hour (100mph) while using deceptive body movement and ball spin to confuse opponents. In 2000, balls were expanded to 40 mm in diameter (1.57 inches), up by 2 mm, to increase air resistance and slow the ball down after complaints that the game’s machine-gun pace was too hard for spectators to follow.
+ Originating as a parlour game in Victorian England played with makeshift paddles, rounded wine corks as balls, and stacks of books as nets, its early names included “whiff-whaff”, but “table tennis” and the trademark “ping-pong” entered usage by the late 1800s. An undeniable boost came when Mao Zedong declared it China’s national sport, setting the stage for “ping pong” diplomacy.” Today table tennis is among the world’s most popular sports, played competitively by tens of millions.