Medal hopes for rivals of table tennis powerhouse China

John Weaver
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Japan's Jun Mizutani, seeded third, has risen to a career high of number five in the world rankings

Japan's Jun Mizutani at the ITTF World Tour 2012 China Open in Shanghai in May. Among the players most likely to challenge the Chinese men are Mizutani, Germany's Timo Boll and Michael Maze of Denmark

World number one Zhang Jike leads China's table tennis juggernaut at the London Olympics but a medals clean sweep is out of reach due to new rules that give rivals a share of the glory.

The Chinese achieved table tennis perfection at the 2008 Games in Beijing, sweeping both singles podiums and winning the team titles -- fuelling fears that their iron grip was damaging interest in the sport.

Since table tennis joined the Olympic programme in 1988, China have taken 20 of the 24 available golds, including all four at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.

And the sport's top administrator said this week in London that the "devastating" Chinese had widened the gap still further since Beijing.

"The current situation is actually worse than in Beijing -- worse in the sense that the difference in technical level between the Chinese and the rest of the world has grown even further," said International Table Tennis Federation president Adham Sharara.

"This is good for the Chinese, but devastating for the rest," he added. "The Chinese are expected to win everything, so even within China the public is crying for a meaningful foreign challenge. This is not on the immediate horizon."

His comments follow a warning from veteran Hungarian player Krisztina Toth that the Olympic tournament risked being a "boring" spectacle because of Asian dominance.

China's power -- demonstrated yet again by their men's and women's titles at the world team championships in Germany this year -- has long led to concerns over the sport's public appeal.

But in London there will be at least two non-Chinese paddlers on the singles podiums, after each country was limited to just two entrants. There are also men's and women's team events at the ExCel venue in London's Docklands.

China boasts the world's top four men and top four women. Aside from Zhang, Wang Hao took silver in the men's singles in 2008 and in Athens in 2004 and gold in the Beijing team event.

China's strength in depth is so impressive that three-time Olympic gold medallist Ma Lin, the reigning singles champion, misses out.

Zhang is chasing his own milestone -- a "grand slam" of titles after winning the world cup and world championship crowns last year -- with team-mate Wang his main rival.

Among the players most likely to challenge the Chinese men are Japan's Jun Mizutani, Germany's Timo Boll and Michael Maze of Denmark. Mizutani, seeded third, has risen to a career high of number five in the world rankings.

European champion Boll, 31, has competed at every Olympics since Sydney 2000 and is the only non-Asian in the men's or women's world top 10s.

In the women's tournament, Ding Ning, who like Zhang won last year's world championships and world cup, almost missed out on the Games when she failed to gain one of two automatic qualification places available.

But the withdrawal of Guo Yan through injury opened the door to London.

The main challengers to Ding and her team-mate Li Xiaoxia will be South Korea's Kim Kyung-Ah and Kazumi Ishikawa of Japan.

In the team competition, Singapore and Japan will be eyeing an upset.

Since 1988 there have been only four non-Chinese golds -- three for South Korea and one for Sweden's Jan-Ove Waldner, who won the men's singles in 1992 and remains the only non-Asian gold medallist.

There will be other nations on the podium in the the singles competitions in London -- but red will be the dominant colour.