LONDON, July 18 (Reuters) - 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 titles.
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 Aug. 1-2.
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)