Beijing's hottest event still to come: pingpong

Aug. 11, 2008, 11:23 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The only sounds in the stadium were crisp pings and pongs as athletes prepared for what will be one of the hottest events at the Beijing Olympics.

When table tennis starts Wednesday, the newly built Peking University Gymnasium will be filled with more than 6,200 roaring fans, cheering on the heavily favored home team and the dozens of former Chinese who now play the national sport in adopted countries.

"Of course I like coming to compete in China. It's just like coming home," said Austrian paddler Chen Weixin, who is a native of China's Inner Mongolia region.

All serious table tennis athletes compete or train in China at some point, and the raucous atmosphere is well known to all.

"It's an experience, you really feel like table tennis is a big sport. For a lot of other places, especially in the first rounds, you don't have a lot of supporters. But here, for every match it's going to be fun," said Thiago Monteiro of Brazil, after a training session Monday.

Chinese athletes at the Beijing Olympics have all made references to the immense pressure of meeting the country's expectations, but the table tennis squad is held to an even higher standard. The team boasts the world's top players, and it's won 16 out of the 20 gold medals in table tennis since it was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1988.

Sports headlines like "Chinese pingpong team faces big pressure, carries the expectations of 1.3 billion at the Beijing Olympics" illustrate just how much is riding on the success of players like Wang Hao and Zhang Yining. China, which has the deepest talent pool in the world, isn't expected to face much of a challenge in the team event.

"In the team, of course they will win. The thing is not if they're going to win, the thing is how many matches they're going to lose in team, one or two," said former gold medalist Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden, who is famous in China for competing against five generations of the country's athletes.

As for singles, the draw on Monday makes it possible for China to sweep all three medals in the event - adding up to a potential eight-medal haul for the hosts in table tennis. But a singles sweep is much more daunting.

"In singles, even if they're very big favorites they only have three players. So if one plays not on the top and loses early, the pressure is going to be unbelievably big," Waldner said. "As a player, I think this is the biggest title you can win, the Olympic Games in China."

The venue, which was designed especially for table tennis, was undergoing a last-minute detailing two days before the fans flood in. Workers methodically wiped each of the blue spectator seats on Monday, while others in the concourse squatted on the floor with rags and cleaned the floorboards.

Players have been training in the venue for the past several days, getting accustomed to the setup, lighting and air currents.

Matches will be played on blue tables made by official supplier Double Happiness, which feature blue and pink neon lighting underneath that lends the game a bit of Las Vegas style.

Though the Chinese are the biggest stars, the competition will feature a few athletes who also stand out in their own right. Poland's Natalia Partyka, born with a right arm that ends just below the elbow, will be competing in the women's team event and then sticking around in Beijing to defend her gold medal at the Paralympics in September.

And there's Priscila Tommy from Vanuatu, a tiny group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean. She's the lowest-ranked player in the women's competition, at No. 849 in the world.

But 17-year-old Tommy is well-known in her little country of about 215,000 and was chosen to be the flag-bearer for the three-member delegation in the opening ceremony.