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Five things to know about table tennis Olympic champ Ma Long

Ma Long is a three-time gold medallist at the Olympic Games and the reigning singles Olympic champion. But who, exactly, is he? Here are five facts about the Chinese superstar.
By ZK Goh

Ma Long is a three-time Olympic gold medallist, the reigning men's singles Olympic champion, and one of the best players the table tennis world has ever seen.

The 32-year-old, who could become the greatest table tennis Olympian ever at the Tokyo Games in 2021, is a global superstar of the sport, but away from the limelight prefers to keep a low profile.

As such, there are some aspects of Ma Long's life that are maybe more obscure.

Here are five facts – some fun, some lesser-known – to know about the three-time singles world champion from the northeastern Chinese city of Anshan.

1. Ma Long's three nicknames

Some people might have a nickname or even two. Ma Long has at least three in regular usage among his fans and the table tennis world.

The first of those nicknames is "the Dragon".

Why? Ma's given name, Long, has the Chinese character – meaning dragon. Simple enough.

Unsurprisingly, another common nickname is "Captain Long". Ma is the captain of China's men's national table tennis team, and has held this role since 2014.

Perhaps the most interesting of his nicknames is "the Dictator".

He got this nickname from his style of play that dominated and dictated games. He's a ruthless attacker who controls matches.

Three nicknames that describe Ma Long perfectly.

2. Ma Long's record world number one stint

Before the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) switched to a weekly world ranking at the start of 2021, it was Ma Long who held the record for the longest time spent at world number one among men's singles players.

Ma recorded 64 months at the top of the standings, first topping the rankings in January 2010.

From March 2015 to December 2017, he recorded 34 straight months at world number one, before injury and a change in calculations saw him slip off the top.

While he has not been back to world number one since, he has – when fit – continued to be a force, successfully defending his 2015 and 2017 world singles titles at the 2019 World Championships.

For over a decade from March 2007 until October 2018, Ma was not ranked outside the top ten in the world once.

3. Ma Long's Olympic heroes

It's no surprise that Ma counts his predecessors in the Chinese table tennis team – including Liu Guoliang, the former Chinese head coach and current president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association – among his heroes.

But, away from table tennis, Ma is just another sports fan like everyone else.

Speaking to the Olympic Channel in Shenzhen, China, in 2019, Ma revealed which fellow Olympic champions in other sports he looked up to.

"I used to play football, and in the last few years I've played some basketball," he said then, listing Argentinian football superstar Lionel Messi, a Beijing 2008 Olympic champion, and seven-time NBA All-Star Paul George (gold at Rio 2016), among his favourites.

And he's a fan of tennis, too, naming both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as inspirations.

4. Ma Long would have been a golfer if not for table tennis

What would Ma Long have done if table tennis hadn't worked out for him?

In addition to playing football and basketball, Ma had his eye on another sport.

China isn't known for producing many top golfers, with only one – Rio bronze medallist Feng Shanshan – winning a men's or ladies' major championship.

But speaking in a 2015 video on the ITTF's "Ask A Pro Anything" segment, Ma said that would have been his sport of choice.

"Maybe I [would have been] a golf player," he said then.

Expanding on that when he sat down with the Olympic Channel four years later, he clarified that he had reduced his recreational golf.

"I used to play golf," he said. "But with the fear of injury, I’ve been playing less."

5. Greatest table tennis player of all time?

Ma currently ranks joint-second among men in the all-time table tennis Olympic medal honours, with three gold medals. He is behind only Zhang Jike (three golds and one silver), who he beat in the Rio 2016 final.

If selected for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021 as expected, Ma would have the opportunity to become the most distinguished male table tennis player in Olympic history.

And, already widely regarded as one of the best of all time, Ma could seal that spot for himself if he competes in both the singles and team events in Tokyo.

Wang Nan (four golds, one silver) currently sits atop the all-time list, and only two players – Ma and Ding Ning – have a shot at taking top spot for themselves.

However, with Ding no longer among the top three Chinese women, her place in the Tokyo squad is not a forgone conclusion.

Ma could re-write history, and put to bed once and for all the "GOAT" discussion in table tennis.