Liu Guoliang, a unique Olympic Games achievement
Staged in Atlanta from Monday 23rd July to Wednesday 1st August 1996, for the first time in the table tennis events at an Olympic Games and not the last, China completed the clean sweep.
However, there was one significant achievement that never happened again. It was the only occasion the winner of the men’s singles title also secured men’s doubles gold.
Liu Guoliang was the name in question; the men’s singles winner beating colleague Wang Tao in the final, earlier he had partnered Kong Linghui to men’s doubles gold. Likewise, Deng Yaping joined forces with Qiao Hong to claim women’s doubles success prior to securing the women’s singles title.
The format of play was the same as four years earlier in Barcelona. In each of the men’s singles and women’s singles events, play commenced with 16 groups, a maximum of four players per group, only those finishing in first positions advancing to the main draw. It was the same principle in each of the men’s doubles and women’s doubles events but with eight groups, each of a maximum for pairs.
Overall, a total of 64 players competed in the men’s singles, one less in the women’s singles; 31 pairs participated in each doubles event.
A successful format of play but there were problems; for the first time at an Olympic Games, the initial draw was made entirely by computer with the results being shown on a video screen. Alas, it was not entirely successful. Although the program had been tested extensively and there had been a thorough dress rehearsal the previous day, when it came to the actual draw, in the men’s singles the computer insisted on drawing the same player into two different groups!
Unfortunately, the event had to be re-drawn twice before a legitimate result was obtained; this clearly did not enhance the presentation. Nevertheless, even after the delays the whole process was completed in less than an hour, a considerable improvement over the time taken by previous manual draws.
Somewhat differently, a feature of the organisation was the information system, continuous updates with detailed results was well received.
A splendid venue with seating for 4,000 spectators, notably table tennis being one of the first events to sell out but problems had emerged as a result of the test event, the World Team Cup, held the previous year. The hall was below ground level with no natural ventilation, air conditioning was essential. Recalling the difficulties caused with air currents at the Barcelona Games, it was decided to use an airlock system to restrict the flow of air; the move proved very successful. The temperature was kept at a comfortable level both for players and for spectators, air movement over the field of play was negligible.
Careful positioning of the additional light sources was needed but during the men's singles quarter-finals the lights failed when someone elsewhere in the centre switched off the supply by mistake There was a 20 minute interval before they had cooled enough for the lighting to be restored.
A memorable Games and for the officials from the International Table Tennis Federation, who stayed in the hotel nearest the venue, a very distinctive memory but one not connected with table tennis. The daily journey to the Congress Center was through the Centennial Olympic Park. At 1.20am on Saturday 27th July a bomb placed there by a political extremist exploded, one person was killed, over 100 injured; thankfully, nobody from table tennis.
The perpetrator, Eric Rudolph, was not caught until five years later. He remains incarcerated at the ADX Florence Supermax prison near Florence, Colorado.
Editor: Ian Marshall