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Your Road to the Olympic Team - How to Become An Olympic Table Tennis Player

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Photo of Ilija Lupulesku

The USA's Ilija Lupulesku - Olympic Bound for the Sixth Time?

Photo by Mariann Domonkos, by courtesy of the ITTF
While almost every member of the public likes to think that they are a good ping-pong player, and every parent naturally believes his children are future Olympic table tennis champions, the harsh reality is that the competition is fierce to win a place to represent the USA in the Olympic Games, and only a select few will have the training, technique and temperament to make it to the top.

Governing Body for the Sport

The USATT is the national governing body for table tennis in the USA. The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) is the international governing body for table tennis, and the ITTF writes the rules which are used in the Olympic Games.

Minimum Requirements to be on the Olympic Team

In theory, there is no minimum playing standard that you are required to reach in order to make the USA Olympic Table Tennis Team. In practice, men need to be at least a 2600 USATT level player to have a shot of getting to the Olympics. The four USA male players who qualified to compete at the North American Olympic Trials are all over 2600 level - Ilija Lupulesku (2777), David Zhuang (2672), Han Xiao (2657), and Cheng Yinghua (2647). Although age is no barrier, with David Zhuang being 44 years old and Cheng Yinghua being 49!

Even in the female ranks, it's not much easier, with automatic qualifiers Gao Jun and Wang Chen being rated at USATT level 2672 and 2624 respectively. Of the four female qualifiers for the North American trials, Whitney Ping is rated the lowest at 2332 - still a very high standard.

Road to the USATT Olympic Table Tennis Team

Take a look at the USATT Member Ranking Chart from the USATT website. Assuming that a player begins playing at age 8-10, he (or she) might be somewhere around the 1000 level after a year or two. If he is a typical player, he will reach his peak by his mid-twenties (older players such as David Zhuang, Cheng Yinghua, and Gao Jun are no longer at their peak - but they are still very very good!). That means in order to have a realistic chance of making the USA team, that player needs to improve around 1600 rating points in around 15 years - that's less than 100 rating points a year! Easy! Or is it?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple - as you continue to move up the ranking list, each new 100 point level gets harder and harder to achieve. Take another look at the USATT Member Ranking Chart and note the shape of the curve - once you reach that 1700 level, the curve drops steeply down to the elite ranks. That 900 point gap between 2600 and 1700 level represents years of sacrfice, sweat and effort. And while some players are more talented than others, it's probably a fair generalization to say that if you haven't reached a USATT 2000 level by the time you hit age twenty, you aren't going to make it to the Olympics as a player - the odds would be stacked against you.

On the plus side, at the recent USATT Olympic Trials held at Drexel University Campus in Philadelphia from January 10-13 2008, any USATT member was allowed to participate in the trials if they were willing to pay a $200 US entry fee. Several less than elite players actually anted up their $200 to be able to say they tried out for the Olympics, and had a blast!

How to Qualify for the Olympics

In order to be considered for nomination to the USA 2008 Olympic Games Table Tennis team, an athlete must:
  • Be a citizen of the United States and eligible under the international rules of the IOC, with a valid US passport.
  • Be a member of USA Table Tennis (USATT).
  • Qualify as a member of the team by meeting the criteria below, which are listed in order of priority, until the all available spots are filled - positions for 3 male athletes and 3 female athletes.
    1. The 2007 Pan American Games Men's Singles Gold Medalist and Women's Singles Gold Medalist automatically qualify.
    2. Any USATT table tennis players ranked in the top 20 players in the ITTF world rankings as of 1st January 2008, with a maximum of 2 players per gender who can qualify for each National Olympic Committee (NOC). This is how the USA's Gao Jun and Wang Chen qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games.
    3. The 2008 North American Olympic Trials, scheduled for April 4-6 in Vancouver Canada, where 3 positions per gender have been allocated for North American Athletes.
    4. The ITTF World Qualification Tournament, currently scheduled for 1-11 May 2008.
    5. If the USA qualifies for the Team event in Men's or Women's Teams, the team may be put together from athletes who have qualified for the singles event, plus USA athletes according to the finishing order at the North American Trials.
This is a much simplified distillation of the selection criteria - you can find a complete list of the selection criteria here at the USATT website - don't worry, the relevant part is only 8 pages long!

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