Table tennis: 22 Asian players qualify for 2016 Olympics

Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 22 to reflect the latest changes in Olympic qualification, as one player who made the cut in the Hong Kong qualifying event was later rejected based on world rankings as of May 5, allowing what would be called a “lucky loser” in tennis to grab his slot.

Reflecting the diverse geographical spread of the continent, the deep talent in the Chinese table tennis scene and a young crop of rising stars, 11 men and 11 women from Asia qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

For some table tennis players, the 2016 ITTF-Asian Olympic Games Qualification Tournament in Hong Kong provided the only opportunity to book a ticket to Rio de Janeiro, its proceedings similar to the ITTF’s equivalent event in North America (the 2012 edition was meticulously captured and explained in the documentary “Top Spin”). However, because Asian players dominate the ITTF world rankings, some athletes likely did not even need to compete in Hong Kong, and will make it to Rio on the merit of their standing and health.

Or maybe not.  Ma Long, the current men’s ITTF No. 1 player in the world, held that same ranking in the three years leading up to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.  But all it took was a couple of uncharacteristic losses earlier that year to convince the Chinese delegation not to include him in the singles event, proving that subjectivity isn’t just reserved for sports like figure skating and gymnastics.  Although Ma did help China win the team gold medal in London, it was his compatriot Zhang Jike who became the Olympic singles champion.

In Hong Kong, Ma squared off against Zhang on the second day of the tournament.  Unlike most sports events that march in a gradual crescendo to the championship rounds, the ITTF Olympic qualification events take the reverse tactic: they determine the top qualifiers right away, and then continue to formulate draws for those who need second or third chances.  From a Hong Kong fan perspective, this led to disappointment outside work hours: the world’s best were already out of the tournament by the third of a five-day event; a conspicuously out-of-place award ceremony followed the close of the fourth day; and the final day concluded with a whimper, determining only reserve players – or those on the waiting list to compete in Rio.

This meant that the East Asia Stage I semifinal between the reigning world champion (Ma) and the reigning Olympic singles gold medalist (Zhang) took place on a Thursday at about 3 p.m.  (Zhang is perhaps better known for his celebration and subsequent fine of all his prize money at the 2014 ITTF World Cup – although the related video clip still exists on the ITTF’s official YouTube channel, likely because it has passed 800,000 views and counting.)

To the soundtrack of girls bleating “加油 (jiāyóu), Ma Long!” and “加油, Zhang Jike” during breaks, the players put on a show where nearly every eye and camera in Queen Elizabeth Stadium was focused on them, and not the concurrent matches at other tables.  Ma emerged victorious, 11-3, 8-11, 11-9, 11-9, 7-11, 11-7, in a slugfest that demonstrated why the Chinese are not just marginally better than the rest of the world, but much, much better.  With strokes seemingly engrained in muscle memory, Ma defeated countryman Fan Zhendong in the East Asia Stage I final later in the evening, 16-18, 11-3, 11-6, 11-7, 13-11.  Both players acknowledged the crowd as if it was just a friendly exhibition, but Ma was probably very relieved to not have his status for Rio come down to another questionable call.

“The Olympic Games is one big goal in my career, and [it] means a lot to me,” the 27-year-old Ma said in a statement issued by the ITTF after the match. “I’m glad that I have now qualified for it, and I will fight for my first singles gold medal in Rio!”

A difficult choice remains for China’s other slot in men’s singles, and it will likely come down to three players: Zhang, who has not regained the top ranking since December 2012 and has been hampered by a serious back injury; Fan, the world No. 2 who is still only 19 years old; and Xu Xin, who lost to Taiwan’s Chuang Chih-Yuan early in Hong Kong.

Also breathing a sigh of satisfaction was the defending Olympic women’s singles champion Li Xiaoxia.  Aided by the early losses of her higher-ranked countrywomen, Liu Shiwen and Ding Ning, the 28-year-old, 5’9” Li comprehensively defeated the 5’2” Japanese Kasumi Ishikawa, 11-9, 11-8, 11-3, 11-4, in the East Asia Stage I final.  Ishikawa has never beaten Li in nine matches spanning six years.

China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea then withdrew their players from the remainder of the tournament, preferring to rely on qualification through world rankings.  Although this move was understandable in terms of protecting athletes, the wind was knocked out of the event’s sails save Ma’s and Li’s extended appearance at the award ceremony where they co-autographed table tennis paddles for a few lucky fans. That set the stage for players from underdog countries to make Olympic history.  Kirill Gerassimenko will become the first man from Kazakhstan to compete in Olympic table tennis, along the way coming back to defeat an increasingly unfocused Supanut Wisutmaythangkoon of Thailand, 11-8, 9-11, 12-14, 8-11, 11-8, 11-8, 11-7.

On the women’s side, 21-year-old Ian Lariba became the first from the Philippines – ever – to qualify for Olympic table tennis, beating Lilis Indriani of Indonesia for the final spot in the singles event, 11-6, 11-2, 11-8, 11-5.

In a very entertaining Stage II match, just a point from defeat, Zokhid Kenjaev of Uzbekistan stormed back to defeat Thailand’s Padasak Tanviriyavechakul, 9-11, 13-11, 11-13, 7-11, 11-7, 13-11, 11-4, leaping onto the table after sealing his qualification.

China’s Olympic presence in 2016 will also cross borders, with former players now representing Qatar (Li Ping, men) and Singapore (Feng Tianwei, women; Chen Feng, men).  The full list of qualifiers follows:


East Asia:

Li Xiaoxia (China)

Ri Myong Sun (DPRK (North Korea))

Kim Song I (DPRK (North Korea))

South East Asia:

Feng Tianwei (Singapore)

Suthasini Sawettabut (Thailand)

Nanthana Komwong (Thailand)

Ian Lariba (Philippines)

South Asia:

Manika Batra (India)

Mouma Das (India)

West Asia:

Mariana Sahakian (Lebanon)

Middle Asia:

Neda Shahsavari (Iran)


East Asia:

Ma Long (China)

Chen Chien-an (Taiwan)

Ho Kwan Kit (Hong Kong)

  • May 22 update: Ho’s countrymen, Tang Peng and Wong Chun Ting, are ranked higher and therefore were named to both the team and singles events.

South East Asia:

Chen Feng (Singapore)

Padasak Tanviriyavechakul (Thailand)

  • Tanviriyavechakul takes Ho’s spot in the Olympic singles draw.

South Asia:

Soumyajit Ghosh (India)

Achanta Sharath Kamal (India)

West Asia:

Li Ping (Qatar)

Middle Asia:

Nima Alamian (Iran)

Noshad Alamiyan (Iran)

Video: 2016 ITTF-Asian Olympic Games Qualification Tournament award ceremony
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Photos: 2016 ITTF-Asian Olympic Games Qualification Tournament award ceremony
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Photos: Ma Long d. Zhang Jike, 2016 ITTF-Asian Olympic Games Qualification Tournament
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Photos: Ma Long d. Fan Zhendong, 2016 ITTF-Asian Olympic Games Qualification Tournament
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine

Photos: Li Xiaoxia d. Kasumi Ishikawa, 2016 ITTF-Asian Olympic Games Qualification Tournament
all photos by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine