China dominates table tennis like no country in any other Olympic sport

Nothing is getting past Li Xiaoxia
Nothing is getting past Li Xiaoxia
Image: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis
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Many countries are very good at this or that Olympic sport. Russia has a reputation for weightlifting. The United States, swimming. South Korea is impeccable in archery. But which country’s sporting supremacy is greatest?

We ran the numbers to find out, and nobody dominates a sport quite like China does table tennis.

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, six medals were given out for singles table tennis, three for men and three for women. China won all six. The sweep caused the Olympic committee to limit each country to sending only two players to compete, instead of three. Then in 2012, with only two men and two women, China won two golds and two silvers. This year in Rio, both players in the men’s and women’s gold medal matches are, again, from China.

That is impressive, but we wanted a more rigorous measure of Olympic dominance. We applied a simple formula to a database of all recent Olympic medals—provided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC)—to generate a “Dominance Score.”

The formula works like this: Each gold medal is worth three points, a silver two, and a bronze one. Our Dominance Score is the percentage of these points a country got out of the total number possible for each sport, including both men and women. So if, for example, South Korea wins silver and bronze in an archery event in 2016, it would have 3 out of a total 6 points and a Dominance Score of 50 for that event. If South Korean archers had won the gold as well, their score would be 100.

Here is the table of Olympic dominance, with China’s table tennis performance firmly in the lead.

The sports countries dominate

In the decades since the first Olympics, sports have changed, and so have the countries competing in them, so it’s difficult to know when to start an analysis of medals. A common starting point is 1992, because the dissolving of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in several new countries being represented at the games. We chose to start at the Olympics of 1988, because it was the year table tennis was introduced. To account for the Soviet Union’s disintegration, we combined its medals with those of Russia, so as to give it the best possible chance to challenge China’s ping-pong dominance.

Let’s see how China got to the top of that list. Here are the historical results for every table tennis Olympic medal ever. Of the 28 possible gold medals, China has won all but four.

Every Table Tennis medal

There are a couple challenges to our conclusion about China being supremely dominant. First, there is the issue of comparing “events” to “sports.”

In the data, for example, there is a sport called “Athletics,” which includes several types of events, from shot put to the marathon. To give other countries a fair shot, we looked at each individual event, with as much granularity as possible. Perhaps the US is unbeatable in the 200-meter freestyle swim? Or some other country is just really good at pole vault?

Even accounting for this granularity, only one country-sport combination surpasses China’s ping-pong: Kenya in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. We have to admit that before doing this analysis, we did not know that the 3,000-meter steeplechase was an Olympic event. Nevertheless, Kenya has a Dominance Score of 68.5 in the event, compared to China’s 63.9 in table tennis.

Kenya’s 3000-meter steeplechase dominance

It’s hard to get past the fact that the steeplechase is just one specific form of running—albeit a very challenging one that involves leaping over tall hurdles and small bodies of water—and is not defined by the IOC as its own “sport.” Even putting that to the side, though, Kenya’s lead here is not so convincing. In fact, the Chinese ping-pong score is artificially low.

China has been limited to only two entrants for the singles tournaments in table tennis, while Kenya is still free to field three in the steeplechase. History tells us that China would most likely win more medals if it was allowed three players. Second, two of the six table tennis events held each Olympics are “team” events, meaning that China, as a country, can only get one medal in each (and it has always won gold). All of the steeplechase events are individual, so Kenya can win multiple medals.

This fact about team events poses another challenge to our dominance measure, so we also looked at gold medal counts. One obvious choice for comparison is the United States in basketball, with a Dominance Score of 42.9.  Because basketball is a team sport, the US men’s and women’s teams can only win one medal each per year, limiting their ability to get a high dominance score. Still, in terms of gold medals China has, since 1988, won a higher percentage in table tennis than the US has in basketball, and has never once failed to win gold in the team event since it began. (The US men’s team famously and embarrassingly won only a bronze at the 2004 Olympics.)

Highest percentage of gold medals

Tonight, two Chinese men—Zhang Jike and Ma Long—will face off to battle for the gold medal in men’s table tennis singles. But no matter which of them wins, China will win both gold and silver, and thus its spot atop the dominance list will remain secure. That is, until South Korea completely takes over archery or, rather unthinkably, somebody else starts winning at ping pong.

The men’s table tennis singles final is tonight (Aug. 11) at 9:30PM Rio time. The 3,000-meter steeplechase, meanwhile, starts on Saturday, Aug. 13.