For Chinese competitors in table tennis, the toughest thing about this Olympic year almost certainly won't be the players from other countries. It'll be making the national team that goes to London.
China owns table tennis like the United States once dominated men's basketball. It has won every gold medal in three Olympics, and four years ago in Beijing it finished 1-2-3 in both men's and women's singles, and swept gold in both team events.
Pingpong, as the Chinese call it, is the national sport and everyone plays, often in city parks where dozen of tables — many mere slabs of concrete — are coveted property. Bricks may replace a missing net. Equipment is simple and cheap.
Against this backdrop, top Chinese players are vying for spots on the national roster. Claiming one isn't easy.
Rules allow for only three men and three women on the team, a quandary since Chinese men and women hold the top five spots in the world rankings. The cutthroat selection process is sure to end with celebrated players left out, including three-time Olympic gold medalist Ma Lin.
"The Chinese teams do not have a weak link," said Adham Sharara, the Egypt-born president of the International Table Tennis Federation. "If you take away any of the team members, they remain very strong. As a matter of fact, they could even enter two teams and maybe win a gold and a silver medal."
London Mayor Boris Johnson said "pingpong's coming home" at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Games.
True, but the sport invented in Victorian Britain bears no resemblance to China's game, which is a source of pride right up there with the Great Wall, pandas and the "pingpong diplomacy" matches with the United States in 1971.
Much of China's success is due to its systematic, Soviet-style approach of recruiting promising 5- or 6-year-olds to sports schools and then ruthlessly winnowing the field for the national team.
China's supremacy even prompted the ITTF to alter its rules for the London Games, hoping to give a few others a chance.
This time around, only two players from one nation can enter singles, eliminating the possibility of another 1-2-3 finish for men and women. China will still be favored to slice and serve its way to gold and silver, and win both team gold medals. The third qualifier for Chinese men's and women's team will be limited to playing to playing the team event.
"The (Olympic) tournament cannot be dominated as before by the Chinese," Sharara said, arguing that both quality and participation are in the Olympic spirit. "This way we have a chance to mix the two."
Chinese officials have been unhappy with the moves.
"There might be a shortage of talent for other teams, but for us — we don't have enough spots," men's coach Liu Guoliang said in an interview recently with the newspaper Sports Fans. "The ITTF might be the one to blame since they have been constantly changing the rules."
For foreigners, China's most famous athlete may be retired 7-foot-5 (2.26 meter) basketball star Yao Ming. For Chinese, it's probably 4-11 (1.5 meter) Deng Yaping, who won four Olympic pingpong gold medals in Barcelona and Atlanta.
Deng was named Chinese female athlete of the 20th century, earned a doctorate at Cambridge University and a sits on the People's Political Consultative Conference, a ceremonial body dominated by the Chinese Communist Party.
The World Team Championships, which ended earlier this month in Dortmund, Germany, offered a preview of the Olympics. China won both team titles, the men beating Germany in the final and the women's defeating Singapore.
Two of the men for London are certain to be Zhang Jike and Wang Hao, who advanced on the strength of their finishes last year in the World Championships in Rotterdam. The third member, the one participating in team competition only, is likely to be world No. 1-ranked Ma Long. He will try to advance through Asian Olympic qualifying later this month.
"We need the whole world to feel our strength and our advantages," Cai Zhenhua, a former national team coach, told the popular online portal Sina.com. "We need to let them feel that it would be difficult to beat China."
The women's picture is fuzzy with the lineup likely to be set later this month or in early May.
"I already have general ideas about the list," women's coach Shi Zhihao said. "As everybody can see, the competition to go to London is fierce."
Guo Yan and Li Xiaoxia have earned places from their performances last year in the World Championships.
However, Guo played little in the World Team Championships, prompting speculation she may have an injury and might be replaced. Her spot could be filled by Guo Yue, who forms the world's top doubles partnership with Li.
The third spot is likely to go to Ding Ning, currently the world's No. 1 ranked woman and, with Ma, part of the younger generation of Chinese players.
"The Chinese, when they are picking their table tennis team, have no sympathy," said Ian Marshall, who will telecast the Olympic matches for BBC-TV. "The sport needs more competition. In my opinion it's not a good thing that China dominates. But the other countries in the world have to catch China."
Anything less than a gold-medal sweep in London will be a national failure, prompting government investigations and intense coverage from the media, which have more latitude covering sports than politics.
Even though table tennis is played all around the world, not many nations can even compete with China. Japan and South Korea probably present the strongest challenge from Asia, with Germany the top threat from Europe.
German Timo Boll is ranked No. 6 — just behind the five Chinese — and earned a silver medal in Dortmund. He's forthright about facing China.
"To really be a world champion, you have to beat China," he said. "There is no cure against China. "
Associated Press writer Li Zhaobin in Beijing contributed to this report.
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