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

Li Xiaoxia is one of the world's top table tennis players and is representing China this Olympics.
Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis
Nothing is getting past Li Xiaoxia
By Nikhil Sonnad, Chi-An Wang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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

China
Table Tennis
63.9
China
Diving
51.5
South Korea
Archery
45.8
USA
Softball
45.8
China
Badminton
43.8
Cuba
Baseball
43.3
USA
Basketball
42.9
USA
Swimming
31.3
Russia
Synchronized Swimming
30.4
Brazil
Volleyball
27.1
USA
Tennis
26.9
Netherlands
Hockey
26.2
Germany
Equestrian
25.4
Italy
Fencing
21.0
China
Weightlifting
19.6

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

1988
Men’s singles
South Korea
South Korea
Sweden
1988
Women’s singles
China
China
China
1988
Men’s doubles
China
Yugoslavia
South Korea
1988
Women’s doubles
South Korea
China
Yugoslavia
1992
Men’s singles
Sweden
France
South Korea/China
1992
Women’s singles
China
China
South Korea/North Korea
1992
Men’s doubles
China
Germany
South Korea/South Korea
1992
Women’s doubles
China
China
South Korea/North Korea
1996
Men’s singles
China
China
Germany
1996
Women’s singles
China
Taiwan
China
1996
Men’s doubles
China
China
South Korea
1996
Women’s doubles
China
China
South Korea
2000
Men’s singles
China
Sweden
China
2000
Women’s singles
China
China
Taiwan
2000
Men’s doubles
China
China
France
2000
Women’s doubles
China
China
South Korea
2004
Men’s singles
South Korea
China
China
2004
Women’s singles
China
North Korea
South Korea
2004
Men’s doubles
China
Hong Kong
Denmark
2004
Women’s doubles
China
South Korea
China
2008
Men’s singles
China
China
China
2008
Women’s singles
China
China
China
2008
Men’s team
China
Germany
South Korea
2008
Women’s team
China
Singapore
South Korea
2012
Men’s singles
China
China
Germany
2012
Women’s singles
China
China
Singapore
2012
Men’s team
China
South Korea
Germany
2012
Women’s team
China
Japan
Singapore

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

1988
Men
Kenya
Kenya
UK
1992
Men
Kenya
Kenya
Kenya
1996
Men
Kenya
Kenya
Italy
2000
Men
Kenya
Kenya
Morocco
2004
Men
Kenya
Kenya
Kenya
2008
Men
Kenya
France
Kenya
2008
Women
Russia
Kenya
Russia
2012
Men
Kenya
France
Kenya
2012
Women
Russia (disqualified for doping)
Tunisia
Ethiopia

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

China
Table Tennis
85.7%
USA
Basketball
78.6
USA
Softball
75.0
China
Diving
72.7
South Korea
Archery
64.3
Cuba
Baseball
60.0
Russia
Synchronized Swimming
57.1
China
Badminton
55.2
USA
Tennis
44.8
USA
Swimming
37.9
German
Equestrian
35.7
USA
Football
33.3
USA
Volleyball
33.3
South Korea
Taekwondo
31.3
Australia
Hockey
28.6

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.

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