TOKYO – Ai Fukuhara says winning her country's first Olympic medal in table tennis was a huge boost but Japan still has a long way to go to catch up with China.
China again swept all four gold medals in London, duplicating its results from Beijing four years ago. Fukuhara spent years honing her skills in China and knows better than anyone what it will take to close the gap with the table tennis superpower.
Japan beat Singapore 3-0 in the semifinals of the team event to guarantee its first medal in table tennis since the sport entered the Olympics in 1988 before eventually losing 3-0 to China in the final.
"I don't think of China as a rival but more of an ideal or goal to strive for," Fukuhara said Tuesday. "To get close to China first we have to improve against rivals like Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore."
Hugely popular in Japan, the 23-year-old Fukuhara started playing when she was three years old, often appearing on TV shows where she was featured as a child prodigy playing against, and beating, much older opponents.
She failed to medal at both the Athens and Beijing Olympics leading some to believe she couldn't compete against the world's top players, especially the Chinese.
"China's players are strong both technically and physically," Fukuhara said. "While we may have two different kinds of drive shots in Japan the Chinese have many different variations of drive shots and that shows you how advanced they are."
Fukuhara said she plans to sit back and enjoy winning the team medal for a while and hasn't even considered whether she will take part in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
"I've been so busy the last few days and I haven't even had time to figure out what I'll have for dinner," Fukuhara said.