July 29, 2012 / 9:10 AM / in 5 years

Table Tennis-Trio of seven-time Olympians fight on

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Sweden's Jorgen Persson serves to Nigeria's Segun Toriola during their men's singles first round table tennis match at the ExCel venue of the London 2012 Olympic Games in London July 28, 2012.Grigory Dukor

LONDON (Reuters) - Nineteen of Jorgen Persson's rivals at London 2012 weren't even born when the Swede made his Olympics table tennis debut.

Such is the lot of a seven-time Olympian.

Remarkably, in a sport requiring lightning reflexes and agility, 46-year-old Persson is one of three table tennis players to be notching up their seventh straight Olympics - every Games since table tennis was introduced at Seoul in 1988.

"I don't remember the three in the last century," joked Belgian Jean-Michel Saive, 42, after winning his first round game on Saturday, his first Olympic win since Sydney 2000.

Croatia's Zoran Primorac, 43, is the third of the seven-timers, and all will play in Sunday's second round, blazing a trail for experience.

"For me every single match, single set and single point is like a bonus," Saive said.

"I just enjoy it. I feel very relaxed, maybe because I'm a bit older I'm not so nervous about as many things as before."

Nicknamed "The Fighter", Saive matched the Belgian record for most appearances at the Olympics. Watching him from the stands on Saturday was the man he matched - Francois Lafortune, an 80-year-old shooter who competed between 1952 and 1976.

But the bar is being raised in London, with Canadian Ian Millar competing in a record 10th Olympics in the equestrian competition.

Most of the multi-Olympians have competed in sailing, equestrian, fencing or shooting. Table tennis, however, is one of the quickest racket sports, with the ball moving between opponents in just a quarter of a second.

Still Here

Neither Saive nor Persson are planning to match Millar.

"This is definitely my last, Rio is too far away," Persson said after winning on Saturday.

He has announced plans to retire before, however, moving into coaching after the 2005 World Championships. Two years later the Swede was back playing.

Saive was more circumspect on his plans.

"Congratulations to him (Millar)," he joked, noting that the 10-time Olympian is helped by a horse.

"When I was in Sydney I was thinking that was my last Olympics. At the closing ceremony in Beijing I was crying thinking, 'This is the end.' And today I'm very happy.

"When I was 20 everybody said, with my style of playing, you will not have a long career, but I'm still here at 42."

Improved diets and training methods are helping all sportsmen, he said.

After twice finishing fourth, Persson is bullish that he can better that at his swansong.

"Sometimes you feel my head wants something but the body isn't reacting the way I wanted," he said, but added: "I'm not finished, I feel quick when I'm in there."

He said he was a "more complete" player and has adapted to a quicker and more powerful game, such as by improving his backhand.

"I can read the game good and I can play with a little more fantasy," he said.

His two semi-final defeats - in Sydney in 2000 and in Beijing in 2008 - still rankle for a man who was world champion in 1991.

"I had two opportunities to go to (Olympics) finals, that's tough. I have done that in World Championships the only thing that's missing is the Olympics," he said.

Primorac, a keen scuba diver and spear fisherman, is the highest ranked of the trio, seeded 28th, while Saive is 38th and Persson is 40th.

If they march on, youth awaits. The favorite is China's Zhang Jike, aged 24 and making his Olympic singles debut.

Editing by Matt Falloon

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