Table tennis became an Olympic event in 1988, at the Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. London 2012 marks the 7th Olympic Games for the sport. It features both men and women for singles and team competitions, with 172 athletes in all.
The sport has been around since the 1880s, and is traditionally seen as basement recreation. But, for many, it is a serious sport, and its path to the Olympics can be traced back to the 1930s.
In 1931, the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) decided at their Annual General Meeting to explore the possibility of entering the Games. Members began researching the matter, but during World War 2 the ITTF was inactive.
They were reactivated in 1946. But their new president, Ivor Montagu, objected to petitioning for Olympic status. He cited three reasons: First, he described the Olympics as for athletics, not sports of the "lawn tennis type"; and, second, he thought the Olympics were for sports without a world title, and the ITTF already had its annual World Championships.
Montagu's final reason perhaps reveals his true motive. He said, "If we were refused it would be a rebuff and humiliation to the game." Perception of the game was especially important in the '40s because the players were not the well-conditioned athletes they are today.
Not everyone in the ITTF agreed with Montagu. Some thought the Olympic funds for training athletes would be a plus. Others pointed out that rejection might bring humiliation, but acceptance could bring much-needed prestige. Many nations were undecided, so Montagu decided further consideration was needed.
Montagu retired in 1967, and the ITTF elected H. Roy Evans of Wales as their new president. President Evans supported table tennis becoming an Olympic event. The Games are only every four years, so he saw no reason why it would interfere with their annual ITTF championships.
In 1977, after much discussion, the ITTF constitution was amended to comply with Olympic Committee standards. In 1981, it was decided that table tennis would be included in the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Ever since table tennis became an Olympic event, China has dominated. Out of the 24 total events, China has won 41 medals (20 gold). Of the top 16 medal winners, 14 are Chinese. The all-time medal winner for table tennis is Wang Nan, also of China. She has five medals (four gold, one silver).
The Chinese have dominated the competition so thoroughly that in 2008 the rules were changed to allow more winners from other nations. The doubles competition was replaced with the team event. This makes it so that China can only win one medal for each gender, as a team, as opposed to taking as many doubles honors as it can. The team event is best-of-five matches: two singles, one double, then two more singles.
The only other country to win more than three medals is South Korea, with 17 total. As popular as the game is in Europe, the only European gold medalist is Swedish legend Jan-Ove Waldner, called "the Mozart of Table Tennis," who won it in Barcelona '92.
2012 London Summer Games
China's domination has inspired another rule-change for the upcoming Summer Games. In 2012, only two athletes per country will participate in singles for each men and women. This guarantees that only two of the three medals can go to China.
The table tennis matches will be held in the ExCel Exhibition Centre, the largest competition venue at the London 2012 Games. The matches will run from Saturday July 28 through Aug. 8.