Table tennis has been an Olympic sport since the 1988 Seoul games. China traditionally dominates the matches — Chinese players have taken home 28 of the 32 Olympic gold medals for table tennis to date. The sport has continued to gain recognition over the last three decades.
With some of the greatest participation in the world (over 225 member associations), table tennis is celebrated worldwide. There are nearly 16 million people in the United States that play table tennis. Yet, the sport is still treated as a niche sport and is often confused with the casual recreational game ping pong.
The beauty of the racket sport is the diversity amongst participants. Table tennis players span across race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, physical and mental abilities. There’s no ideal age to play the sport — many participants range from teenagers to those in their 40s.
“You don’t have to have a superhuman physique. Regardless of what you look like and what your background is, all players can envision themselves as one of the table tennis elites,” says Nancy Zhou, a table tennis player and the Lower New England Division Director at National Collegiate Table Tennis Association (NCTTA). “There are no real requirements for your background or physique. All you need is a passion for table tennis.”
One of the key players championing for diversity in the sport is Dr. Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu. He’s an International Table Tennis Federation Certified Coach who also works with the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay and is a consultant for the US Olympic & Paralympics.
Dr. Chu grew up in Hong Kong where table tennis is a national sport — by four years old he was trying his hand at the sport using videotapes for a make-shift net on a coffee table. At 14, he was training with an elite table tennis squad. He’s been an avid table tennis player ever since and has won many awards.
“Table tennis is readily accessible. It’s a sport that physical ability doesn’t limit players from participating,” Dr. Chu says. Table tennis athletes defy stereotypes. “In table tennis, elite athletes come in all different physical sizes; the best athletes in the world are indeed usually not the tallest or most muscular. Regardless of people’s able-bodiedness, they can be great players!” For instance, Paralympian Ibrahim Hamadtou plays with his mouth.
The first table tennis athlete to actively compete with Parkinson's on the Olympic and Paralympic levels was Navin Kumar.
The Indian-American table tennis player was first introduced to the low-impact sport when he was four and suffered from a heart condition.
He’s gone on to win two bronze medals at the 2018 US Open (the first Parkinson's medalist in US Open history), a silver medal for the USA in doubles, and a bronze medal in singles at the 2019 ITTF Parkinson's World Table Tennis Championships. Playing table tennis makes him feel enabled, not disabled.
“Table tennis transcends physical handicap. On a given night in my table tennis league, I play people of all ages, different physical handicap levels. I have to take all of them seriously because any one of them can beat me if I'm not playing at the top of my game,” he says. His coach is Larry Hodges, who is in the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame.
Many competitive players in the States are first-generation Americans as table-tennis is extremely popular in Asia and Europe.
Anushka Oak has been playing competitive table tennis since she was nine. Like many young table tennis players, there’s a family legacy present.
Her father played for India and later for the U.S. in the 2010 World Championships and trained with her mother. “Tournaments are a melting pot of so many different people across the country that bond through the love of this sport. Beyond just playing matches, table tennis brings people together and creates a community at these tournaments,” the silver medalist says.
Oak considers table tennis to be a full mind and body workout and notes that it’s a very strategic game, similar to chess. “Table tennis is more physically intensive than most recreational players know. The core strength, stamina, power, and control needed to master the spin and speed of the ball is incredible. It's an amazing release to clear my mind,” she says. Oak is coached by Huijing Wang, a Chinese immigrant who landed a spot on the US 2020 Tokyo Olympic team.
Gender diversity is also prevalent among table tennis players. Lily Zhang is ranked 27th in the world for women, is a three-time Olympian, and will also represent the US at the Tokyo games. “I’ve seen Lily play and she’s always so positive and uplifting. Her game is fierce,” Oak says. Looking to the future, Dr. Chu hopes there will be greater female participation in the sport at all levels from players to coaches. Oak agrees that the future of table tennis is bright as it’s one of the most inclusive sports.