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

Rio 2016
Rio 2016

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

Country Sport Dominance Score
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

Year Event Gold Silver Bronze
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

Year Event Gold Silver Bronze
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

Country Sport 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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