Member of Team USA Competes in Paralympic Table tennisMember of Team USA Competes in Paralympic Table tennis

Table tennis

Table tennis was developed in England around 1880 as an alternative to lawn tennis. In its early years, it was mostly played by wealthy families as an after-dinner game. Table tennis didn’t become an Olympic sport until 1988, but it has been a Paralympic sport for athletes in wheelchairs since the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960. The sport classifications have expanded over time to include both standing and sitting athletes with physical impairments as well as those with intellectual impairments.

Paralympic and Olympic table tennis follow the same rules. Players use a racket to hit the ball back and forth, and a point is awarded when an opponent cannot return the ball or when an opponent touches the table with their free hand. Once a player reaches 11 points with at least a two-point margin, that athlete wins. Athletes practice agility, quick thinking and remarkable precision as games may be won and lost over a mere fraction of an inch.

 

TIMELINE:

1880
Table tennis developed in England as an after-dinner game

1960
The first Paralympic Games, held in Rome, includes table tennis for wheelchair athletes

1976
Standing players eligible to compete in Toronto Paralympic Games

1980
Arnhem Paralympic Games accepts table tennis athletes with cerebral palsyDefinition: Damage to the central nervous system.

1988
Olympic table tennis debuts in Seoul

EVENTS

Paralympic table tennis features men’s and women’s single and team events, with a total of 29 medal events to be held during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Athletes play five sets; to win a set, players must reach 11 points with at least a two-point margin. The best of five sets wins. During play, the serve alternates every two points unless the score is 10-10, in which case it alternates after each point.

EQUIPMENT

Para and able-bodied table tennis feature a waist-high table, a net, a ball and two rackets—the official term for the wooden paddles used to hit the ball. It is covered with a maximum of 4 millimeter-thick (0.2 inch-thick) rubber on each side, and one side is smoothed while the other is bobbled. One side of the racket must be red and the other black. Table tennis balls have a diameter of 40 millimeters (1.6 inches), weigh about 2.7 grams (0.1 ounce) and are filled with gas.

Athletes may use crutches, artificial limbs, orthopedic braces, heel uplifts to offset differing leg length, and straps or binding to secure the racket for players with limited grip function.

FAST FACTS

They’ve got moves: Players use a backspin—striking underneath the ball—to slow the ball down and make it bounce as low as possible off the playing surface. A drive is an attack stroke when a player hits the ball across its topside at an acute angle.

They played with what? In its earliest formats, table tennis equipment was improvised by the typically wealthy English families that played the sport. It was not uncommon to use books for the net, a champagne cork for a ball and cigar box lids for rackets.

By popular demand: With more than 300 million players across the globe, table tennis is the world’s most popular racquet sport.

Athlete Spotlight:

Tahl Leibovitz

Tahl Leibovitz was born with osteochondroma—a disease that produces benign tumors throughout the bones. Every step he took for years was extremely painful, and he suffered acute pain in his back. As a teenager, Leibovitz dropped out of school and his father kicked him out of the house. He never returned home.

Leibovitz spent seven years living on the streets of New York City—sleeping on the subway, stealing food and eventually, at the age of 14, discovering table tennis at the South Queens Boys Club. He spent his days playing table tennis at the club until it closed. At 18, he left New York to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and he soon qualified for the U.S. Paralympic team.

He was a quick success, winning gold at his first Games in 1996, despite that he was still homeless at the time. He has since been a part of Team USA in 2004, 2008 and 2012—and he even qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team in 2004. Leibovitz was the three-time New York state champion and 12-time Parapan American Gold Medalist.

His is a story of beating the odds—from homeless to Paralympic champion. Leibovitz attributes his success to a carefully crafted mental game, claiming table tennis is 95 percent mental. He’s poised to play his head game again in Rio.

Althete Spotlight Tahl Leibovitz

CLASSIFICATION

Paralympic table tennis competition is open to male and female athletes with physical and intellectual impairments. Athletes with physical impairments compete in sport classes 1–10, and athletes with an intellectual impairment compete in sport class 11.

Note: The models presented below are examples. A classification evaluation must be performed to determine an athlete’s sport class(es).

Physical Impairment

Visual Impairment

Intellectual Impairment

Within each of the two table tennis sport class groups—sitting and sanding—a lower number usually indicates more severe impairments.

Sitting

1

2

3

4

5

Table tennis athletes in sport classes 1–5 compete sitting.

1

Athletes with the most severe impairments compete in sport class 1. These players have no sitting balance and a severely impaired playing arm due to conditions such as tetraplegia. These athletes may support their balance with their non-playing arm.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Competes in
Wheelchair

2

Like those in sport class 1, these athletes have no sitting balance, but their playing arm is less severely impaired. They may tape the paddle to their hand to compensate for impaired grip strength.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Competes in
Wheelchair

3

Thanks to nearly full hand and arm function, athletes in sport class 3 can maintain their balance while maneuvering the wheelchair. Many of these athletes have spinal cord injuries or neurological conditions such as cerebral palsyDefinition: Damage to the central nervous system..

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Competes in
Wheelchair

4

In addition to fully functional arms and hands, these athletes have some sitting balance and can move to meet the volley.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Competes in
Wheelchair

5

Class 5 athletes have normal sitting balance as well as full arm and hand function. They can stretch to hit the ball and maneuver the wheelchair effectively. These athletes may have lower spinal cord injuries.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional
 Competes in
Wheelchair

Standing

6

7

8

9

10

Table tennis athletes in sport classes 6–10 compete standing.

6

Class 6 athletes compete standing, though their impairment may impact either their arms or legs or full body. Impairments such as ataxiaDefinition: A lack of muscle control during voluntary movements., athetosisDefinition: Condition in which abnormal muscle contractions cause involuntary writhing. and hypertoniaDefinition: Abnormal increase in muscle tension that reduces the ability of a muscle to stretch. impact the athletes' balance and quality of strokes.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

7

Athletes in sport class 7 may have impairments of the legs, the playing arm or both—for example, amputationsDefinition: Amputate: to cut (as a limb) from the body..

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

8

These athletes have moderate impairments of the legs or playing arm—for example, weakness due to post-polio syndromeDefinition: A condition that affects polio survivors, usually marked by gradual new weakening in muscles that were previously affected by the polio virus..

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

9

Class 9 athletes have mild impairments of the legs or playing arm—for example, restricted elbow extension. Or these athletes may have a severe impairment of the non-playing arm, which impacts serving the ball.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

10

Sport class 10 is reserved for athletes with the mildest physical impairments that still meet the minimum requirement for competition in the Paralympic Games. Players with short stature may compete in this class.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional

Paralympic table tennis athletes with activity limitations due to an intellectual impairment compete in sport class 11. Learn more about athletes with intellectual impairments in the Paralympic Games.

11

11

These athletes have difficulties with pattern recognition, sequencing, and memory, or have a slower reaction time—all of which impacts their sport performance.

Impairment Severity Scale

UnaffectedMildModerateSevereNonfunctional