Tue | Sep 19, 2017

Hubert Lawrence | Medal sweeps and wild cards

Published:Thursday | May 26, 2016 | 5:00 AM

It isn't fair when the rules of sport seem to smash one team or country in particular. It has happened in several sports and appears to have happened in table tennis, where China is the superpower. It simply doesn't seem fair.

China is the most successful nation in Olympic table tennis, winning 41 medals (20 gold, 13 silver, 8 bronze).

In 2008, when China hosted the Games in Beijing, their players did the unprecedented. Led by Ma Lin and Zhang Yining, the Chinese delighted the lively home crowds by winning gold, silver and bronze in both the men's and women singles. In a display of mastery, China won the men's and women's team events as well.

Fast forward to the London Olympic Games of 2012. The rules changed. For the first time since table tennis became an official Olympic sport. In 1988, no country could enter more than two players in the individual events.

Imagine that in Olympic track and field. The historic one-two-two finish by Jamaica in the 2008 100 metres would have been impossible. With Jamaica's selection system, Sherone Simpson would have been barred from Beijing on account of her third place finish in the 100m at the 2008 Jamaican National Senior Championships. The same thing would have happened to Warren Weir who completed a Jamaican medal sweep at the London Games in the 200 metres. Like Sherone in 2008, he finished third at the Nationals.

Untenable in other Olympic sports, the restriction has beaten world number two, Fan Zhendong, out the upcoming Games in Rio de Janeiro. He may become the king of table tennis later in his career, but this year his endeavour is for naught. In his place is reigning Olympic champion, Zhang Jike, the current world number four.

This 28-year-old is wonderfully good in big tournaments. Before shoulder injuries slowed him, he had also won World Championships in singles when many doubted him in 2011 and 2013. Presumably, the Chinese table tennis authorities have taken that into account when they choose him over Fan and world number three Xu Xin.

As we have seen in athletics, where the so-called wild card safeguards the qualification of immediate past winners to its latest World Championships, the presence of the defending champion adds something to the competition. Upsets make even bigger headlines when it is the champion who has fallen. Conversely, repeat wins make champions into legends. Zhang's presence in Rio is therefore welcome, but because Fan can only watch, it comes at great expense.

 

Restrictions

 

As in London, the restriction will give a medal to a non-Chinese player.

There is a solution that resonates far more with the spirit of fair competition. The suggestion is that each country be allowed three players in the Olympic singles competition once they meet the requirements of the International Table Tennis Federation. Moreover, it would preserve the right to sweep, which is permitted in other Olympic sports and to display the work, the infrastructure and national will that international dominance requires.

The use of a wild card for either the reigning Olympic champion or World Champion would add excitement to table tennis. An Olympic wild card for the reigning World Champion would probably work well in that athletics, too. It would be a right only a winner could earn.

• Hubert Lawrence has made notes at trackside since 1980.