by James Francis and Kabir Nagpal
On Wednesday 11th September in Dongguan (China), France defeated USA in the quarter-finals of the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. This marked a momentous end to the American basketball team’s historic 58-game unbeaten streak in major international tournaments (World Cup, Olympic Games and the America’s Cup) stretching back 13 long years to their defeat to Greece in the semi-finals of the 2006 FIBA World Championships (predecessor to the World Cup).
USA’s exit at the hands of France has not been the only shock of the 2019 FIBA World Cup to date. With Serbia losing to Argentina in the quarter-finals as well, this will be the first FIBA World Cup ever to feature neither USA nor Serbia/Yugoslavia in the semi-finals.
The modern world sports event
A lot can be made of such upsets in sport due to the availability and form of certain athletes – especially in the case of USA. However, awarding the World Cup to a growing superpower in sport like China and staging the event across multiple venues and cities has earned FIBA plenty of recognition from its peers in world sport.
It is no secret that today, the organisation and implementation of global sports events are immense tasks for one single city to manage – sometimes even too huge for one single country. The greater geographical coverage a tournament has locally, the better results they receive in terms of fan engagement.
A recent announcement that Philippines, Japan and Indonesia won the hosting rights for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup has provided food for thought at the ITTF regarding table tennis’ modernisation of the World Championships, which will be played under a new and expanded format of the World Table Tennis Championships Finals from 2021 onwards.
“Here we have a very interesting case study of how an International Federation (FIBA) is trying hard to grow its commercial properties, whilst competing with well-established commercial properties in the market – especially the NBA. As a sport, table tennis is almost in an opposite situation, as we need to ensure we work on establishing a new commercial property to be able to compete with the more established commercial sports, whilst also ensuring the traditionally important international platforms remain relevant. I do believe if we find synergies with our key market China, we can make a huge, international commercial property and, at the same time, ensure our World Championships remain a vital pillar that seamlessly fits into the new ecosystem and our top players play both events. Having recently attended various major continental events, if team events are to remain a vital pillar of our structure then I do believe that we have to further transform our World Team Table Tennis Championships Finals and seek country hosts prepared to play in different cities in order to take the event to more parts of any given country and ensure that a greater proportion of matches have much more importance.” ITTF CEO, Steve Dainton
America’s Invincibles no more. Team China marches on.
When one of the undisputed sporting powerhouses, such as the American basketball team, finally loses a match, one has to ask what the invincible truly looks like?
Across the enormous, far-reaching realm of world sport, the answer would appear to lie close to home: namely China’s table tennis teams in both men’s and women’s disciplines.
Since table tennis was first introduced as a team’s event at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, China has not put a foot wrong in the competition, with the men’s and women’s teams each recording the maximum 13 match wins to claim gold firstly on home soil, followed by the ultimate prize at London 2012 and Rio 2016. They remain hot favourites for glory at Tokyo 2020.
In terms of the World Championships, the men’s team is enjoying an unbelievable 69-match winning streak and nine consecutive titles stretching back to 2001. The women’s team is also building something special following 32 match wins and four titles in a row since 2012. Their all-time record sits at an imperious 84 consecutive match victories and eight titles between 1975 and 1991. No doubt, the newspaper headlines that day would have expressed the same level of shock as witnessed this week across the media world.
Underpinning China’s well-trodden and purposeful path towards becoming a sporting powerhouse are the country’s incredible number of sports lovers, the amazing talent pool, and efficient investment in identifying and developing the most promising young athletes and turning them into world beaters.
Raising the challenge
As with Team USA in basketball and Team China in table tennis, such dominance across sport is often looked at as a double-edge sword, given the nature of today’s fans to move away from anything that starts becoming monotonous.
On the contrary, whenever there is a titanic upset – like USA’s loss to France – there is always going to be a sea of discussion about what is best for the sport. Is it really a good thing to see a Goliath being taken down by David if it increases the shock-quotient across the fans? Is it even a David vs Goliath situation in the first place?
The last time China were beaten to a gold medal at the Olympic Games was by Korea Republic in 2004 when Ryu Seung-min claimed the men’s singles title by defeating Chinese favourite Wang Hao. Given that factoid, it has been nearly 16 years since another national association rightfully upset China at the grand stage of sports.
Even across the ITTF World Rankings, there are nine Chinese athletes out of 10 in the Top 5 of the men’s and women’s respective standings. This is the kind of dominance which creates a shock whenever we see the likes of Ding Ning, Xu Xin, Chen Meng and Ma Long lose out to other top athletes like Tomokazu Harimoto, Mima Ito, Timo Boll and Lin Yun-Ju.
It’s clear that a little mystery in any sport helps to keep it interesting, while ultimately the champion gains his or her just rewards on merit, as Team China has done so consistently over the years through sheer hard work and rarely rivalled talent.
Now whether anyone has it in them to disrupt the flow of Team China at next year’s World Championships in Busan (Korea Republic) or at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games remains to be seen. Should one team or even one athlete shake things up or ruffle a few feathers, it might make the fans sit up and notice. After all, what better way to announce yourself on the world stage than to cause a stir against the might of Team China?
But beware, when you poke the “Dragon”, it often roars and breathes fire like no one else.