China clinches eight-medal table tennis sweep

BEIJING — China clinched a record eight-medal sweep in Olympic table tennis Saturday, cementing the pingpong-mad country’s domination of the sport.

Sweden’s Jorgen Persson, the only non-Chinese player to make it to the men’s medal round, was easily beaten by Wang Liqin in the single’s bronze medal match.

Persson, a 42-year-old trying for his first medal in six Olympic appearances, opened strongly against Wang, but withered quickly against the high-speed topspin shots that are the specialty of the tall Chinese player.

Later, world No. 2 Ma Lin defeated No. 1 Wang Hao in the gold medal match to complete the haul.

“They played perfectly to create this perfect ending for the pingpong competition at the Beijing Olympics. I never dreamed it would be so easy,” Chinese coach Liu Guoliang said.

The Chinese men and women easily won the team events earlier this week, while the women swept the singles medals on Friday.

Though China has always been dominant in its national sport of table tennis, the eight-medal finish is its strongest showing yet.

China’s only other 1, 2, 3 finish was in the women’s singles event at the 1988 Seoul Games.

A top table tennis official expressed concern China’s dominance was hurting the sport, creating ho-hum contests with predictable results.

“We cannot blame China for being so strong, as it is their national sport. Other nations have to become stronger,” International Table Tennis Federation President Adham Sharara said before the final. “We do not want to limit Chinese participation, but we need other nations to grow to challenge them.”

The men’s singles final was played with three red flags of China already prepared for the medal ceremony.

Ma outlasted Wang Hao in a tense matchup that showcased the country’s skills. The men tried to outwit each other with dynamic play that ranged from soft pushes to high-speed volleys. Ma won with a score of 11-9, 11-9, 6-11, 11-7, 11-9.

It was another disappointing finals appearance for Wang Hao, who lost to South Korea’s Ryu Seung-min in the gold medal match at the Athens Games.

“Last time, I lost to a foreigner. This time I lost to a teammate. To say I don’t feel bad is impossible, but it’s not as unbearable as losing to a foreigner,” Wang Hao said.

In the bronze medal match, Wang Liqin struggled in the first game against Persson but stormed back in the second on his way to sealing the win with a score of 13-11, 11-2, 11-5, 11-9.

At times, the match turned into the pingpong equivalent of a slam-dunk contest: Persson was only able to feed the ball to Wang Liqin, whose long arm sliced through the air as he repeatedly drilled the ball across the table from 3 meters (10 feet) back.

Play was delayed for several minutes before the fourth game as Persson had his leg massaged by a trainer after it began cramping following a long rally.

Liu, the coach, said he was inspired by Persson’s fighting spirit. As a player, Liu foiled Persson’s first opportunity to win a medal, beating him in the bronze medal match in the 2000 Sydney Games.

“He’s 42, 43 years old, and even when his leg was injured and he was down 0-3, he still refused to give up,” Liu said. “We’ve been watching him play since we were kids. I’ve been coaching for years now and we’re still watching him play.”

Persson, who also lost to Wang Hao in the morning semifinal, said it would be difficult to break China’s stranglehold on pingpong.

“They are all very good and it’s especially very good to be on top when it’s a big tournament,” he said. “So we have to fight and I hope this can encourage more players. When I can be there, of course young players can also do it.”

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