Can China's Olympic table tennis domination be stopped?

China’s overwhelming domination of table tennis at the Olympics is likely to continue in Rio but there will also be intense competition among the rest of the world for bronze and, maybe, a surprise gold or silver.

China's Ding Ning practices at the Riocentro pavillion. China has won 24 of the 28 gold medals since table tennis became an Olympic sport. The nation's domination is likely to continue in Rio.   -  Getty Images

China’s overwhelming domination of table tennis at the Olympics is likely to continue in Rio, but there’s drama about just which member of the talented Chinese national team will prevail.

Starting on Saturday, there will also be intense competition among the rest of the world for bronze and, maybe, a surprise gold or silver.

Among the other stories that could captivate are: a 16-year-old American looking to make his name internationally, war-torn Syria getting its first Olympic table tennis entry and two female Paralympian athletes competing in Olympics.

Even if it’s another largely all-China affair, fans who tune in will be treated to a mesmerising mix of wicked spins and powerful slams, with players rocketing the small, lightweight, white plastic ball at each other in a blur of slicing parabolas.

THE CHINA SCRAMBLE

Just qualifying for a Chinese team that has taken home 24 of 28 gold medals since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988, and all the golds in the past two Games, is a major achievement. For instance, the current women’s World No. 1, Liu Shiwen, didn’t get one of her country’s two spots for singles, though she will be part of the team competition. Instead, it will be London champion Li Xiaoxia, now ranked No. 5, and reigning world champion and World No. 2 Ding Ning, who won silver in London, going to Rio in singles.

For the men’s side, current World No. 2 Fan Zhendong, a rising young star, and World No. 3 Xu Xin didn’t make the Chinese singles team.

London champion Zhang Jike, who was named after Brazilian soccer star Zico, will go to Rio in singles, despite being ranked No. 4 in the world and putting in erratic performances since London. Zhang, for instance, lost in the first round of a June tournament in South Korea to a player from Taiwan ranked No. 63 at the time. The other Chinese for the men's singles will be Ma Long, the current World No. 1, who lost in the finals of that South Korean tournament to Xu Xin.

THE REST OF THE WORLD

Although still a source of national pride, some see a dip in table tennis’ popularity as China has become richer, more confident and more curious about other sports.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, have been working to catch up. They’ve been helped by a rule that limits each country to only two players for each singles event; that gives everyone else a chance for medals, though mostly of the bronze variety.

While China has the top three women’s spots currently in the world rankings, there are three Japanese in the top 10, as well as one player each from Germany and Singapore.

For men, China takes the top four spots, but after that comes players from Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Belarus and South Korea.

The United States has never won a medal in table tennis, but there is excitement about the future. Kanak Jha, now 16, was the youngest male to qualify for table tennis in Olympic history when he made the U.S. team in April while still 15.

DOUBLE DUTY

Two female Paralympian table tennis athletes will also compete in the Olympic Games — a first, according to table tennis officials. Natalia Partyka of Poland, who was born without a right hand and forearm, has been in the past two Summer Olympics, in Beijing and London. Partyka has also won three gold medals at the Paralympics.

It is the first Olympics for Melissa Tapper of Australia, whose right arm has nerve damage.

SYRIA'S FIRST

Syria will send its first player to an Olympic table tennis tournament, despite a long, calamitous war. Heba Alleji, 19-years-old, is currently ranked No. 713 in the world. She has competed in international competitions before, including the 2016 Asian Olympic qualifiers and the World Tour Qatar Open.