08/07/2012 12:28 EDT | Updated 10/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Chinese women win another gold in Olympic table tennis; men go for London sweep

LONDON - China's women gave the country its third gold medal in table tennis on Tuesday.

Having done their job, it didn't take long to hit their coach with a request: time off to be tourists in London.

"I arrived in London more than 10 days ago, but I have not been to any famous places like Big Ben," said Li Xiaoxia, who won singles gold several days ago.

She teamed with silver-medallist Ding Ning and Guo Yue to win the team event on Tuesday, defeating Japan 3-0 in a sport it dominates like no other.

"I hope tomorrow I can do something like a city tour," Li added. "But it will depend on the coach if he will agree with that or not."

That put coach Shi Zhihao on the spot, sitting a few meters (feet) away from Li.

"The last thing Li Xiaoxia said is wrong," he replied. "After the Olympics, they can do whatever they want."

China overwhelmed Japan, and the Chinese men will be prohibitive favourites on Wednesday to defeat South Korea and complete the sweep of four gold medals, repeating the feat it pulled off four years ago in Beijing.

Table tennis — the Chinese call it pingpong — is China's national pastime, and the country has now won 23 of 27 gold medals since '88, and is almost certain to make it 24 of 28.

Expectations were high, an estimated 500 million were probably watching on TV, and the trio delivered.

With three China-born players, the Singapore women took the bronze medal, defeating South Korea 3-0.

The Chinese women are even more dominating in table tennis than the nation's men. Only three women's teams in the Olympics played without China-born players, or players with roots in China — North Korea, Japan and Egypt.

"The Chinese team is too strong," said Ai Fukuhara, Japan's most famous table tennis player and a national icon who is up there with female football star Homare Sawa.

China's winning team represents the new generation, all 24 or younger and the latest in a long line of famous female players.

Li is on course to match the record of several national icons.

Zhang Yining won four gold medals in the last two Olympics. Wang Nan won her four golds in three Olympics — 2000, 2004 and 2008. And Deng Yaping started the string with four in 1992 and 1996, and went on to be one of the faces of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"In China there are so many excellent players," said 19-year-old Kasumi Ichikawa, who played with Fukuhara and Sayaka Hirano. "In the next four years I'd like to concentrate on improving my technique and get stronger mentally and physically."

Japan's women defeated China in the final of the 2010 world junior championships, a team led by Ishikawa. So there may be hope.

For Japan, the silver was like gold — and the women treated it that way, laughing, smiling and ready to celebrate.

"I need to buy some souvenirs before I go home," Fukuhara said.

It was Japan's first Olympic medal in table tennis, going back to 1988 when the game entered the Olympics.

"We are pleased, and this should encourage children in Japan to aim for Olympic medals and start playing table tennis when they are very small," Hirano said.

Fukuhara is from the area in northern Japan that was devastated last year by the earthquake and tsunami.

"I promised the children of the affected-area I would come back with a medal from the London Olympics," Fukuhara said. "I am very pleased and happy to go back to the area and show it to the children."

They'll be happy with silver, too.


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