By Steve Slater
LONDON (Reuters) - As China marched towards a clean sweep of table tennis golds for the second straight Olympics, their men's coach said rivals should use the Olympics to raise their own standards to challenge the ping pong superpower.
"We just hope the whole ability of the table tennis world will be developed. We welcome the talented table tennis player to come to China for their game," said Liu Guoliang, a former Olympic champion who now coaches China's men.
"I know it (China's domination) is not so good, but we have a lot of history in table tennis."
Indeed it does. 'Ping pong' may have been invented as an after-dinner game in England in the 19th century, but in the 1950s Mao Zedong declared it China's national sport and it has thrived there since.
Watching the speed and agility of the top Chinese players can be exhilarating, but some in the sport worry their superiority may be harming its global appeal.
China's men's quarter-final against Singapore on Sunday was over in 72 minutes, leaving a near-7,000 crowd to watch Hong Kong beat Japan in an enthralling match lasting 3-1/4 hours.
Germany, the fourth seeds, will face China in the semi-final. Europe's top player Timo Boll, who has a strong following in China, said he expects some unusual support.
"I think even the Chinese are getting bored of China winning all the time. They are waiting for a close match," Boll said.
"Maybe we can create the sensation of the tournament tomorrow ... I think we need a little bit more support, including some Chinese. Maybe the whole world will be behind us," he laughed.
CHALLENGE IN 2016
Adham Sharara, president of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), the sport's governing body, expects China's domination to be challenged at the Rio 2016 Olympics by a generation of young players from Japan, France and South Korea, among others.
"About eight years ago China started to dominate again and I feel that now they are near the end of this strong domination as the young players from Europe and the rest of the world come through," Sharara told Reuters in an interview.
Any one country dominating a sport was not good, he acknowledged.
"For the future China will definitely be challenged by these other countries. But it's not tomorrow, it's maybe another three or four years before we can see that new generation coming in," he said.
China coach Liu likened the pressure on his team to succeed to that on the U.S. basketball team, and said the dominance of Chinese players was not something for China to fix.
"That's something for the ITTF, it's not something for the national team of China," he said.
"Maybe that's the spirit of the Olympics. We need to learn from each other, from the competition," he added.
The ITTF cut the number of players from each country that could play in the singles event to two at London 2012 from three previously, but China still won gold and silver in both the men's and women's singles, and are red-hot favourites to take gold in both team events.
China have grabbed 22 of the 26 golds awarded since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988, and 17 of the last 18.
Russia's men did provide a glimmer of hope on Saturday by taking the doubles match in an overall 3-1 team loss.
"Of course you can plan against the Chinese but maybe it won't be five or 10 years till other nations can beat them. They work harder. If you go into the practice hall you will see that," Russia's Alexey Smirnov said.
Germany should provide stiff competition in the semi-final, in a rematch of the Beijing 2008 final. Germany, including bronze singles medallist Dimitrij Ovtcharov and world number seven Boll, beat Austria 3-0 in their quarter-final.
Hong Kong will play South Korea, the second seeds, in the other semi-final, after dumping out third seeds Japan 3-2.
But even all three Hong Kong players were born on the Chinese mainland. Many Chinese who fail to hit the top ranks are competing for other countries.
"We are definitely loyal to Hong Kong, otherwise we would be playing for China," said Hong Kong's Chu Yan Leung.
But then his team-mate Tang Peng pointed out: "We are playing for Hong Kong but there is no difference between Hong Kong and China, we are in the same country."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)