Times change, Seoul and Tokyo total contrasts
China’s Ma Long and Ding Ning won the respective men’s singles and women’s singles events at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games; each played five matches in order to secure their precious medals. They commenced proceedings in the third round, in fact you could argue it was the fourth round, a preliminary commenced proceedings.
Whatever the prognosis, it was the last 32, the round in which the top 16 seeded players entered the tournament.
At the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the order of play will be the same and when the curtain is drawn later this year on Friday 6th August, history suggests that champions will emerge from one of those elite names; it has never been any different.
However, what is different is the thinking, when from Friday 23rd September to Saturday 1st October, table tennis first appeared on the menu at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games. Every player was involved from the very beginning, 64 men and 48 women; no gender equality.
Korea Republic’s Yoo Namkyu, the men’s singles gold medallist, played 11 matches; his counterpart Chen Jing endured nine contests. Both remained unbeaten throughout a most intense schedule. In the men’s singles, there were eight groups, each of eight players, in the women’s singles eight groups each of six players. In both instances players finishing in first and second positions in each group advanced to the last 16, the knock-out stage.
Moreover, the second stage of all events was played as a "progressive knock-out", a system in which losing players in each round were not eliminated but continued to play against other losers to determine the lower places and hence a final ranking order. Thus, a player who lost in the first round could not conclude matters higher than ninth place, losing the next, not higher than 12th spot and so forth.
The aim was to provide all players with a reasonable number of matches rather than being eliminated in the first encounter. The advantage of this system was seen as providing lower ranked players with as many matches as possible; also, it was hoped it would be an incentive to continue competing for the final places.
However, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages. A total of 28 matches was required to complete a group, these matches took up most of the available time. Additionally, the group matches were between players of vastly different ability and were of little interest other than to those directly concerned. The knock-out stages were completed in only three days, in Tokyo it will be seven days for men, six for women. Furthermore, the contests for the lower places did not arouse great interest either from spectators or from players.
In the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, it will be very different; we learn from experience; how times have changed.
Editor: Ian Marshall