Fans from all corners of the globe will be feasting their eyes on one of the biggest occasions on the international table tennis calendar as the gladiators of the professional scene clash heads in the race for men’s team glory at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
A 12 month wait still lies ahead before destiny is decided in the Japanese capital, but here’s a reminder of how the men’s team competition has panned out so far:
Beijing 2008: China 3-0 Germany
Celebrations broke out at the Peking University Gymnasium as the Chinese women’s team guided the host nation to a historic gold medal finish. Now it was the time for their male counterparts to step up to the challenge and they didn’t disappoint!
Team China faced stern opposition at the final hurdle in Germany, a side that showed great determination to come through a nail-biting semi-final encounter against Japan as 3-2 victors. Accompanying the ever-reliable Christian Süss were two players who posed serious threats to the Chinese with former World no.1 Timo Boll and young talent Dimitrij Ovtcharov capable of throwing a spanner in the works.
Making his Olympic debut in Beijing it was Ovtcharov, aged 19 at the time, who spearheaded the European nation’s line-up for the final. The teenager mounted a commendable effort but was ultimately outplayed by a formidable Wang Hao (11-4, 11-8, 11-7). A true clash of titans then played out as Ma Lin went toe-to-toe with Boll – twists and turns throughout, Ma prevailed across four games (11-7, 8-11, 11-4, 11-7). Boll returned soon after with Süss but further disappointment followed for the Germans with Wang Liqin and Wang Hao proving too hot to handle (11-13, 11-5, 11-8, 11-7). The gold medal belonged to the host nation.
London 2012: China 3-0 Korea Republic
The second Olympic men’s team final was an all-Asian affair as China concluded its title defence campaign at London 2012 in opposition to Korea Republic.
An intense rivalry between both nations, China and Korea Republic were well accustomed to meeting one another on the biggest of stages having stood on opposite ends of the table at the 2008 World Team Championships final, not to mention their semi-final head-to-head at the 2012 World Team Championships in Dortmund. Both occasions resulted in Chinese celebrations and it was much the same in the English capital!
Guiding his country to Olympic singles gold eight years prior, Ryu Seungmin arguably provided the biggest headache for the Chinese strategists but a mesmerising display from 23-year-old Ma Long against the Korean stalwart in the opener (11-6, 11-6, 6-11, 11-4) put China on the right track. The star of the 2012 Games, Zhang Jike doubled the champions’ advantage with his victory over defensive specialist Joo Saehyuk (11-9, 5-11, 11-6, 11-8), before partnering up with Wang Hao to battle past Oh Sangeun and Ryu 3-0 (11-4, 11-8, 11-6).
Rio 2016: China 3-1 Japan
Fans heading to Riocentro – Pavilion 3 were well aware of China’s domination on the Olympic stage and were ready to witness an achievement of legendary proportions as Team China zeroed in on making it three from three gold medal sweeps in the team discipline.
Finalists again, this time China faced different pretenders to the throne in Japan in what proved the closest gold medal contest yet. Ma Long was once again the first man out on court for the champions and just as was the case in London he achieved the desired effect, beating Koki Niwa in straight games (11-6, 11-9, 11-6). However, it didn’t take long for jubilation to turn to shock as Jun Mizutani stunned Xu Xin in a seven-game thriller (12-10, 11-9, 3-11, 7-11, 12-10) to level the tie.
A sense of unchartered territory filled the arena, for the first time in the all-important title decider China had been denied a perfect 3-0 record! Momentum shifted in Japan’s favour, was there an upset on the cards? Maharu Yoshimura and Koki Niwa forced further pressure on the champions with a strong start to the doubles, but Zhang Jike and Xu Xin stood firm (4-11, 11-6, 11-9, 11-5) to restore China’s lead. Returning to the table for a second time Ma Long delivered another crushing performance against Yoshimura (11-1, 11-4, 11-4) to bring proceedings to a close.
China had added to its legendary status, achieving all six team gold medals across the men’s and women’s events – will that record be extended further when the heat of battle rages out in the Japanese capital in 2021?