The History of Table Tennis at the Olympics

Table tennis, or ping pong, is a sport that’s been around since the 1880s.

Since its creation, it has gained popularity as both a casual and competitive sport around the world. It has become so popular that it actually became an Olympic sport. But how did it become so popular? And how has the game evolved since its inclusion in the Olympics?

early ping pong equipment

The first paddles were usuallyt made out of wood and covered in vellum canvas that was stretched across the wooden frame.

Table Tennis Before the Olympics

Table tennis is a sport that was made at some point during the 1880s. It’s unknown who exactly created the sport. However, we do know for sure that it was created by tennis players who wanted to bring their game indoors during the winter.

If you’d like a more in-depth look at the game’s history, be sure to check out this article. A fun fact about the game’s other name, ping pong, is that it was created after the game’s conception. In fact, the name “ping pong” is simply a name used for trademarking purposes and to label associated equipment to the sport.

It was originally trademarked by an English firm, J. Jaques and sons then later trademarked in the U.S. by Parker Brothers, a popular board game company. Soon after the game had become trademarked, table tennis started to become very popular.

Audiences from all over began to enjoy it and it soon became a competitive sport. The first table tennis championship tournament is said to have been held as early as 1901. These competitions were reported to have over 300 participants!

The sport was able to reach other countries beyond Britain and the United States when it was introduced to Japan in 1902. It was introduced by a Japanese university professor who had played the game while in Britain. Around the same time, a British salesman by the name of Edward Shires had taken the game to Hungary and Austria.

From there, it wasn’t long before people from all sorts of countries from Germany, France, Sweden, Serbia, Poland, Singapore, and even Brazil! By the 1920s, clubs were forming in Britain and tournaments were becoming larger and larger.

In fact, a tournament that had 40,000 competitors was hosted by the Daily Mirror, a newspaper company in Britain. It was in 1926 that the first world table tennis championships were also held in London. 

It was around this time and throughout the 1930s that the sport was absolutely dominated by players from central Europe. In particular, Hungary won the world championships nine times and Czechoslovakia won twice.

Because of World War 2, These tournaments didn’t pack back up until the 1950s. During the 1950s, we see a shift in where the best players come from. Instead of central European players dominating the scene, Asia became took up the mantle, especially China.

Places like Hong Kong and Beijing spat out champions. Every world tournament up until the Olympics had been won by either a Japanese or Chinese player. In 1980 the first World Cup for table tennis was held and, to nobody’s surprise, a Chinese player had taken first prize.

Trying to Get Table Tennis to the Olympics

Table tennis would not be recognized as an Olympic sport until 1988. What’s interesting about this, however, is that there had multiple attempts in the previous decades for table tennis to make an appearance at the Olympic games. In fact, this was proposed first in 1948.

This idea was shot down, sadly, for a few reasons. Probably one of the biggest contributing factors is that the Chairman of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) at the time, Ivor Montagu, opposed this idea.

Also, since the games were held in London during this year, the British Olympic Committee shot down the inclusion of table tennis. They cited that there were already too many games at the Olympics already and had actually motioned to reduce the number of sports. 

It wouldn’t be until 1954 where there would be another attempt to make table tennis an Olympic sport. The proposition was made during an annual meeting of the ITTF. The matter was looked into further by the ITTF when the Swiss Association had asked them to.

It is not quite evident what caused the ITTF to eventually throw out the discussion, but in 1957 it was decided that table tennis would not be an Olympic sport. In the late 1960s, the discussion to include table tennis in the Olympics was brought up once more.

This time, the French Association recommended that the ITTF try to get affiliated with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The ITTF would go on to look into this matter in the following years into the 1970s. 

The 1970s would prove to be a pretty turbulent time for table tennis. From 1971-1975, the ITTF found it would have to actually change its constitution in order for the IOC to consider table tennis as an Olympic sport.

Specifically, there was nowhere in the ITTF constitution that said the organization was an amateur body. A decision to amend the ITTF constitution wouldn’t be made until 1977. However, at the time of this discussion, they had actually already sent in an application of recognition to the IOC.

It was unlikely they’d reach a decision before they’d hear of the IOC’s decision, so the ITTF had to withdraw their recognition application. In 1979, the ITTF had successfully changed their constitution so that they could apply successfully to the IOC. 

The 1980s finally saw table tennis included as an Olympic sport. At first, it was going to be used as a demonstration sport in the 1984 games but never made an appearance. Afterward, talks to take table tennis to the 1988 Summer Olympic Games began, and eventually it would debut in Seoul, South Korea. 

Table tennis paddle and ball with China flag

Chinese players have dominated table tennis at the Olympics.

Table Tennis as an Olympic Sport

After its inclusion in the 1988 Summer Olympics, the sport of table tennis has been included in every subsequent one. The main events of the sport include men’s singles, women’s singles, with mixed doubles being added in 2020 for the delayed Tokyo Olympics.

The sport’s inclusion has led to increased popularity, as well as the development of many new techniques and gear. At the Olympic level, table tennis is very fast-paced, and obviously, the amazing skills of the players shine through.

However, the fast pace of the game made it very difficult for viewers to keep track of, especially when the event is televised. That’s why, in the year 2000, the ITTF made changes to the rules and regulations of the game. 

These regulations were aimed at making the game more televisable and slowing it down a little bit. One of the problems with the game at the time was that many players were using a special type of glue, known as speed glue, that essentially helped to make the ball faster and create more spin.

This type of glue has since been banned by the ITTF. The creation of the now-standard rubber and sponge sheet in the 1950s created a lot more speed and spin. Before this, the paddles were literally only made of wood.

Additionally, before the rule change in 2000, table tennis balls were originally 38mm. The small size of the ball combined with the intense speed of the game led to various rule changes. 

Firstly, balls had to be 40mm in order to be eligible to be used in competition, secondly, the use of speed glues was banned completely, and thirdly the maximum thickness of paddles rubbers, and sponges were regulated.

The reason behind the third regulation is that players were using very thick sponge layers to drastically increase speed, making the game even hard to watch when televised. There were three more important rule changes following the first ones in 2000.

In the same year, the point system was changed to an 11-point system, from a 21-point system. In 2002, rules were put in place that prohibited a player from hiding the ball during a serve. Finally, in 2014 all table tennis balls had to be made from a new poly material as the old ones were very flammable. 

Olympic Table Tennis Events

Originally, the Olympics featured both men’s and women’s singles and doubles. However, this was changed in 2008 when doubles for both men’s and women’s were discontinued. Now, instead of doubles, there are team events. 

The singles events feature up to a maximum of 70 players. No more than two players from each National Olympic Committee (NOC) can qualify. There are lots of stipulations as to who can qualify for the Olympic games.

However, this isn’t really important to the history of the game as it’s been a constant since it was allowed in the Olympics. With 70 players, it is clear that there is stiff competition for gold medals. The doubles events, however, are a different story.

As we said earlier, these events were discontinued and then replaced with mixed team events. In these events, there are a total of 16 table tennis teams. These teams are not strictly men’s teams or women’s teams and are made up of a combination of the two.

In these team matches, there are two singles matches followed by one double. If absolutely necessary, there will be one to two more singles matches to determine the winners. 

olympic table tennis

The Influence of the Olympics on Table Tennis Techniques and Equipment

Something you might not think about immediately is the influence that the Olympics had on table tennis equipment. With the sport becoming more and more well-known and practiced by so many people around the world, table tennis players obviously want to get an edge on their opponents somehow.

Therefore, it only makes sense that many different techniques and equipment would be developed to give players an advantage. 

Equipment

Probably one of the best examples of such equipment would be speed glue. This is a type of glue used to fix the rubber onto a table tennis blade that allows you to apply more speed and spin to the ball.

But how does it work exactly? Without getting too deep into the scientific aspects, the solvent vapors of the glue make the porous cells of the rubber expand. Simply put, this makes the rubber more elastic and ultimately increases spin and speed.

Some people have compared the effects of speed glue to that of a trampoline because the rubbers become so bouncy. However, there is a big tradeoff to this glue. Unfortunately, it is made using volatile compounds and the vapors that are given off by it can actually be harmful to people and it will reduce the life of the rubber.

While it may improve performance for a while, it can cause serious harm and ultimately lead to higher equipment costs from rubber replacement. This type of glue was ultimately banned by the ITTF because it made the sport hard to watch and because of health concerns for the players.

Therefore, any paddles that are caught with this glue are not allowed to compete. Speed glue is easy to detect as well as it gives off a very pungent, distinct odor. Glue is not the only kind of table tennis equipment that has been influenced by the hyper-competitive nature of the Olympics.

Balls and paddles have also received a similar treatment. Particularly, there are plenty of brands, paddles, and paddle parts that are used by certain Olympic players such as Ma Long, Liu Shiwen, and Sun Yingsha.

Table tennis paddles are also constantly being innovated to give players a leg up on their competition. An example would be the crystal technology that is seen in some popular, pre-made paddles. This hardens the blade and increases speed for faster shots. 

Techniques

Another thing that to take note of in the world of ping pong is the constantly evolving type of techniques its highest skilled players use. Several different types of grips and service styles have been developed over the years and become popularized by Olympic athletes. 

A prime example of a newly developed technique is the V-grip that has been created by Chinese players. It is a new type of grip style and still being experimented with but it shows that innovation in the world of table tennis is a necessity in the highest levels of play. 

This type of grip is certainly unorthodox. To use it properly, you must place the blade of the paddle in between your index and middle finger. Your thumb will sit under the blade, while the rest of your ringers support the grip. This type of grip even requires a specialized blade in order to be utilized properly. 

The idea behind this grip is to create more spin due to the type of motion utilized when striking the ball. It is sort of a windshield wiper motion and this grip has also earned a nickname because of it. 

Blocking is another technique that has seen a lot of changes since the sport has become popular in the Olympics. New blocking techniques had to be developed because of how strong the Chinese tactics were when they created them during the 1970s. Forced, stop, and chop blocks had to be created in order to deal with the Chinese offensive techniques. 

The creation of so many different techniques and tactics has ultimately led to increased speed during gameplay as well as unpredictability. It can be extremely difficult to keep up an experienced player who is liable to use all of the tools that are available to them during a table tennis match. 

If you’d like to learn more about Olympic table tennis and famous players such as Xu Xin, Wang nan, and Liu Guoliang, check out this article on our website.

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Riley Draper

Avid table tennis player, world traveler, and content creator. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn.