Table Tennis - Everyone asks: Who can beat Chinese?
LONDON (Reuters) - Chinese fireworks lit up the London 2012 opening ceremony and China's young table tennis stars are expected to rise to the task of taking every gold, although rivals hope the pressure could lead to an upset.
"It would be like birthday, Christmas, Easter, everything together if a European gets a medal," said Kristin Silbereisen, Germany's 22nd seed in the women's singles.
The Chinese were not in action on day one of the competition -- but they and other top seeds enter the arena on Sunday. Whether they can be beaten is the talk of the event.
"It's very, very difficult to beat the Chinese. They don't just prepare for the Olympics for one or two years, they prepare for the four years with their training system," said Australian Miao Miao after winning her first round match on Saturday.
"But there is a chance because there are younger Chinese players who have never been to an Olympics and there's lots of pressure on their whole team. All of China will focus on them when they compete, so they have much more pressure than us."
The shadow of China's dominance hangs over table tennis, the country's national sport. They have won 20 of the 24 golds on offer since it became an Olympic sport in 1988, and 15 of the last 16.
Countries have been limited to two players at the London 2012 singles competition for the first time, so another country is now guaranteed a podium place.
That could ratchet up the pressure on the two men and two women, rivals reckon.
Zhang Jike and Wang Hao are the world's top two men, and Ding Ning and Li Xiaoxia are the top two women's seeds. Only Wang Hao has played in an Olympics singles before.
"Maybe before in (Athens) 2004 or (Beijing) 2008, everybody said, 'OK, three Chinese players, three medals'," said Germany's Silbereisen, suggesting the change had given rivals a psychological lift.
"You feel in the training camps that everybody knows there is a small chance that this (winning a medal) could happen."
The best chances for an upset include Germany's Timo Boll or Dimitrij Ovtcharov or Japan's Jun Mizutani in the men's event and Japan's Kasumi Ishikawa or Kim Kyungah in the women's.
Some players said they were relishing the chance to learn while trying to spring a surprise on the Chinese.
"I would love to play them. You can just go for it and I have so much to learn from them," said 16-year-old U.S. player Ariel Hsing, who will face Li Xiaoxia if she wins her second round game on Sunday.
"It's a really good opportunity to practice your mental game as it's such a high pressure tournament," she said.
But if there is an upset, it may only backfire and make Rio in 2016 tougher. In one of the biggest shocks in the sport Singapore's women beat China in the 2010 world championships.
China have since put up pictures of the Singapore team in their training hall to drive them on.
(Editing by Alison Wildey)