Table Tennis at the 2012 London Summer Olympics

There aren’t many sounds more familiar than the rhythmic “ping-pong” patter of a table tennis ball. But in the Olympics, the ball bounces at lightning speed from table to paddle and back, each player attempting to hit ball in such a way that the other player or team can’t return it.

Table tennis became a part of the Summer Olympic Games in 1988 in Seoul. Described as the world’s most popular participation sport, the game’s current popularity might come as a surprise to the British fellows who initially created it to entertain the rich and famous in the 1800s.

Table tennis medal competition at the 2012 London Olympic Games will be conducted July 28 through August 8 at the ExCeL Exhibition Centre in London’s Olympic Park. Be sure to check the official schedule for any time changes.

A table tennis table is 1.525 meters wide and 2.74 meters long. A net, which is 15.25 centimeters high, is stretched across the table at the midpoint. The table top is usually made of Masonite (wood) and painted with a smooth coating. The playing surface is raised 76 centimeters (about 2.5 feet) from the ground.

Although great reflexes and power are critical, often the athletes’ most breathtaking moves are the subtle ones. Thus, dexterity and agility are also key characteristics in an Olympic table tennis champion.

Table tennis can be played between two individuals (singles) or two pairs of players (doubles) who face off on either side of the net. Although the land-the-ball-on-the-opponent’s-side concept is similar to that of its big brother, tennis, the scoring system is not.

There are four Olympic medal competitions: men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles and women’s doubles. Each qualifying country may enter no more than three men and three women (two athletes per singles event). A total of 172 athletes (86 men, 86 women) compete.

Here’s what you can expect to see:

  1. A coin toss determines who serves the ball first.

    In a singles game, first service is always made from the right side of the court.

  2. Players volley the ball back and forth across a net by striking it with a flat, rubber-coated paddle (officially called a racket).

    Each team can only hit the ball once in the attempt to return it to the other side. In doubles play, the team players must alternate who takes the shot.

    Some classic table tennis moves include:

    • Speed drive: Just like a line drive in baseball, a drive makes the ball fly fast and hard across the net almost horizontally, just barely clearing the net.

    • Smash: A shot usually directed down from overhead into the competitor’s territory.

    • Lob: A lob is a ball that sails high into the air (sometimes as high as 15 feet!), past the net, and onto the opponent’s side of the table, often then bouncing off in some unpredictable direction.

  3. Service rotates every two points until the score reaches 10-10, and then the serve changes at after each point is scored.

    In doubles play, teams also rotate who serves with each new service opportunity.

  4. A game is won by the first player/team to reach 11 points with at least a two-point lead.

  5. A singles match is won by the player that wins the best of seven games.

    A team match includes one doubles match and four singles matches. Each match is best of five.

For more information, visit the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) website, home of the sport’s governing body.

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