Table Tennis is one of the most popular sports in the world. Played all over the globe, table tennis was introduced to the Olympics from the year 1988. In a table tennis player’s career, the Olympics is probably the most prestigious tournament.
Some true legends of the sport have immortalised their name in TT folklore by winning a gold medal in the biggest sporting event of the world. As expected, China have dominated the list and they are favourites this time around as well to claim gold in both singles and doubles at Rio 2016.
Let us take a look at the men’s singles winners from the 1988 Olympics to 2012:
1988 Seoul Olympics – Yoo Nam Kyu
The 1988 Summer Olympics was held in Seoul and Yoo Nam Kyu did not disappoint the home crowd. The South Korean paddler who played with a pen-hold grip immortalised his name in history by becoming the first ever Olympic gold winner. What made his victory doubly sweet was the fact that he beat his fellow countryman and compatriot Kim Ki Taik in the final, thus ensuring South Korea both the gold and silver medals.
Yoo Nam Kyu displayed brilliant moment and attacked at every opportunity to down Kim Ki Taik 3-1 in an exciting final. Played in front of a packed home crowd, the final drew astonished ooh’s and aah’s as both the players wowed the audiences with some stunning shots and unbelievable blocks.
The South Korean followed his exploits in singles by claiming the bronze medal in Men’s doubles partnering Ahn Jae-Hyung. The video below brilliantly shows the emotions and brilliant points involved in the first ever Olympics table tennis final:
1992 Barcelona Olympics – Jan-Ove Waldner
Widely considered to be the greatest player of all time, legendary Swedish paddler Jan-Ove Waldner won the gold medal in 1992, beating Jean-Philippe Gatien in the final. A sporting legend in his native Sweden and TT crazy China, Waldner is inarguably one of the greatest ever “shakehand grip” players of all time.
Waldner popularly known as the Mozart of Table Tennis was known for his excellent ball control and counter-attacking style, baffling his opponents by blocking seemingly unretrievable balls.
The Swedish paddler always remained calm under pressure and he always brought his best game out at the most important time. Waldner was so popular in China that in the early 1990s, more people in China knew Waldner than US President Bill Clinton.
Starting his professional career in 1982 as a 16-year-old, Waldner demonstrated remarkable longevity to play at the highest level for more than 30 years before finally calling time on his career in 2015. One of the only 4 players in male table tennis history to win the grand slam (World Championship, World Cup and Olympic singles winner), Waldner is fully worthy of the word “legend”.
Waldner’s blocks are renowned throughout the world and the below video shows the Mozart creating some brilliant music on the table:
1996 Atlanta Olympics – Liu Guoliang
Another grand slam champion, China started their era of dominance in men’s table tennis with Liu Guoliang’s gold medal in 1996. The legendary Chinese paddler overcame fellow countryman Wang Tao with some searing forehand drives and top-spins.
Winner of the bronze medal in 2000, Liu Guoliang cemented his legacy by claiming the doubles gold as well in 1996. The Chinese legend played with a pen-hold grip and a short pimple rubber. A pioneer of the backhand reverse topspin, Guoliang is widely credited with revolutionising the pen-hold style of play and he is considered to be one of the greatest table tennis players of all time.
Currently guiding the current generation of Chinese players to world domination, Guoliang will be present in the Rio Olympics as well, but this time as a mentor.
The below video shows the best glimpses of Liu Guoliang in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics:
2000 Sydney Olympics – Kong Linghui
Kong Linghui first tasted success in the Olympics when he won the gold medal in the 1996 doubles event along with Liu Guoliang. 4 years later, the Chinese paddler wonan Olympic singles gold medal of his own when he won a memorable final against Jan-Ove Waldner.
In what is considered to be one of the best finals of all time, Kong Linghui showcased brilliant all-round attacking play to overcome his idol Waldner. Playing with a shake-hand grip, Linghui had modelled his game on the legendary Swedes Waldner and Persson, but he created his own legacy in the TT world winning the Olympic singles medal and becoming only the third men's player to complete a career grand slam.
Linghui is currently the coach of the Chinese women team and he along with Liu Guoliang were the first paddlers to truly start Chinese domination.
The below video contains full highlights of the final between Kong Linghui and Waldner:
2004 Athens Olympics – Ryu Seung Min
One of the most explosive attacking players of all time, Ryu Seung Min’s gold medal at the Olympics was a slight surprise as he claimed the top prize over the fancied Chinese duo of Wang Liqin and Wang Hao.
Another player who excelled with the pen-hold style of play, Ryu Seung Min became the second South Korean to claim the gold medal when he overcame Wang Hao in a keenly contested final.
The South Korean’s brilliant forehand topspins caught Wang Hao off guard in the finals and his attacking display is still remembered fondly by fans all over the world. Ryu Seung Min’s style of play meant he did not use the backhand at all, choosing not to even have a backhand rubber.
A player who attacked at every opportunity, Ryu Seung Min’s victory is the last time a player broke the Chinese domination in the Olympics.
This brilliant video below shows the legendary Korean reminiscing about his Olympics final match against Wang Hao:
2008 Beijing Olympics – Ma Lin
One of the most consistent players of all time, Ma Lin winning the gold medal in 2008 came as little surprise to fans all the world as the Chinese paddler was the form player in 2008. With the Olympics held in China, there was a huge frenzy in Beijing with China expected to dominate completely in table tennis.
The host nation did not disappoint as they took home all the 3 medals on offer in the Men’s singles with Ma Lin claiming gold, Wang Hao claiming silver and Wang Liqin claiming bronze.
Ma Lin’s dedication to training was a stuff of legend with many people claiming that he wore down the soles of the shoe in just three hours. Known for his powerful third ball attack and effective counter top-spins, Ma Lin was nearly unbeatable at the peak of his powers.
The Chinese paddler has an incredible 88.7% winning rate against all opponents in his historic career. The below video contains the full highlights of the amazing 2008 Olympics final.
2012 London Olympics – Zhang Jike
One of only 4 males to win a career grand slam, Zhang Jike has won almost every trophy and event the sport has to offer. Bursting on to the scene in 2010, Zhang Jike took the TT world by storm with his powerful two-winged attack.
A player who plays with the shakehand grip, Zhang Jike won the 2012 gold beating countryman Wang Hao who lost his third straight Olympic final. Zhang Jike completely dominated Hao in the final putting in a dominating performance to win 4-1.
Zhang's serves are unpredictable and quite deceptive. His most famous serve is probably the reverse pendulum short serve into both corners of the table. The side-spin on the serve, together with his deadly backhand flicks, lightning footwork and top-class anticipation has proven to be a frightening combination as he "opens up" top spin rallies to his advantage.
Known for his backhand flick receive, Zhang Jike is the only person in history of the sport to hold the World Championship title, World Cup title and the Olympic gold medal at the same time.
Zhang Jike will have a tough time defending his gold medal this year as his countryman Ma Long is favoured to claim the top prize this time. The video below shows the best moments from his 2012 triumph.