| LONDON, July 18
LONDON, July 18 Table tennis may be "coming
home", as London's excitable mayor Boris Johnson gushed when the
Olympic torch was passed to him in Beijing four years ago, but
it is likely that all four gold medals on offer will head
straight back to China.
China dominates table tennis, its national sport, and has
won 20 out of the 24 golds since the sport joined the Olympic
programme in 1988, including a clean sweep in 2008.
That domination is expected to continue at the London Games
with top ranked Zhang Jike favoured in the men's singles and
world number one Ding Ning the one to beat for women's gold.
China are even stronger favourites to retain the two team
But there is danger lurking from Japan in particular and
from Germany, Korea and Singapore, in one of the world's fastest
and most skilled sports.
Eighty-six athletes will compete in both the men's and
women's competition, showing off penhold and shakehand grips. A
huge global audience in what claims to be the highest
participation sport in the world will be left spellbound by the
sight of an un-returnable smash or a top-spin lob that turns
defence into attack.
Three players will compete at their seventh Olympics --
Sweden's Joergen Persson, Belgium's Jean Michel Saive and
Croatia's Zoran Primorac -- joining an elite club with only 18
Olympians having reached such a milestone.
At the other extreme is 19-year-old Kasumi Ishikawi from
Japan, fourth seed in the women's singles, and American Ariel
Hsing, aged 16, who boasts legendary investor Warren Buffett as
one of her biggest cheerleaders.
Five years ago ping-pong enthusiast Buffett asked Hsing to
play at a meeting of his investment firm Berkshire Hathaway and
she has returned each year to take on the challenge from all
comers among his investors.
Buffett has said he could be in London to support her, where
he would join Mayor Johnson, who reminded the world when he took
the torch four years ago that table tennis - or "wiff-waff" -
was invented in England in the 19th Century, as an after-dinner
game on dining tables.
Now China is so strong in the sport that qualifying for the
Olympics is half the battle for its players, as each country
only gets two singles spots.
That means for non-Chinese players it is easier to win the
Olympics than the world championships. In London, they will
"only" have to beat two Chinese players at most to take glory on
Japan's Jun Mizutani, the world number five behind four
Chinese and Germany's Timo Boll, ranked seventh, are among the
men hoping to benefit and are seeded third and fourth.
China are even hotter favourites to win team golds on Aug.
7-8 in the three-player competitions -- a knockout event with
the first team to three wins from a doubles match and four
singles games. World number one Ding Ning is unlikely to even
make the doubles game - Li Xiaoxia and Guo Yue are unbeaten as a
pair for almost four years.
(Editing by Steve Keating)