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No medals: Reaching for the podium in America's struggling sports

No Medals: reaching for the podium in America's struggling sports
Netta-Lee Lax

No medals: Reaching for the podium in America's struggling sports

An exploration of the sports in which the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal

NBCOlympics.com spent more than three months exploring the three sports in which the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal. We spoke to more than 15 athletes, executives and historians, learning their compelling personal tales and unpacking the reasons behind this American futility. Here is the story:

It was the summer of 1988, and Sean O’Neill, a lithe 21-year-old from Toledo, Ohio, was in Seoul, South Korea to play ping-pong. O’Neill was the lone male U.S. Olympian in his sport, officially called table tennis, which was being contested in the Games for the very first time.

“Going in, I knew I had my work cut out for me,” O’Neill says, reflecting on his Olympic debut. In conversation, he defaults back to his usual sanguinity (“I had very optimistic goals”), but O’Neill understood what he was up against. Despite his credentials---three-time U.S. singles champion, five-time Pan Am Games medalist---table tennis was dominated internationally by Asian nations, specifically China. Men from China had won gold at the four previous world championships, a continued source of pride for a country whose founding father, Mao Zedong, proclaimed his beloved ping-pong the national sport. Meanwhile, an American had not collected any world championship hardware since 1959.

Twenty-nine years later, as anticipated, O’Neill didn’t sniff the podium, finishing sixth in his preliminary group of eight. To this day, the U.S. still hasn’t broken through in Olympic table tennis, one of just three sports in which the Red, White and Blue have never won a medal.

Since the Olympics were resurrected in 1896, the U.S. has taken home 2,404 summer medals, 1,281 more than its closest rival, the former Soviet Union. Yet table tennis, badminton and team handball have persistently eluded American success. While there’s quixotic hope to break the streak in Rio, a triumphant Olympics trip is about as likely as an empty Copacabana Beach.

 

“Can you beat Forrest Gump?”

 

Lily Zhang says the two questions she gets asked most are: “Can you beat Forrest Gump?” and “Are you good at beer pong?” Questions to which, when asked by NBCOlympics.com, the now two-time U.S. Olympian responds, “No comment.”

For the past half century, ping-pong in America has thrived in basements, rec centers and summer camps, where the stakes are no higher than cheap donuts and high fives. Despite moments of cultural apotheosis like 1970s ping-pong diplomacy and the aforementioned 1995 Best Picture winner, table tennis is still regarded as more a game of recreation than competition.

More than 16 million Americans play the sport socially, according to USA Table Tennis (USATT), but fewer than 10,000 actively compete in tournaments. It's an uncommon feedback loop where popularity breeds triviality. Ping-pong is fun largely because you don't have to take it seriously.

“I think not a lot of people have seen real table tennis,” says the 20-year-old Zhang, who lost her only singles match in London in straight sets. “People think it’s just in the garage, you stand there, swing your arms around wildly or whatever… If we get enough media exposure and enough people to see what the sport actually is, I think it’ll change a lot of minds.”

The CEO of USATT, Gordon Kaye, admits that “one of the things we as an organization have not done well is bridging the gap between social players---recreational players---and competitive play.” Kaye, who joined USATT in 2014, is therefore trying to reform the focus of his organization to worry less about how many people play the game and more about how well those players do. “I think we need to start measuring our success based on success, not participation,” Kaye says.

Even as Kaye emphasizes “performance over participation,” his rhetoric can at times belie that objective, perhaps because of his avowed passion for the sport. Talk to Kaye, and he’ll tell you that “as long as there are two people standing across the table from each other playing, I’m good with that.” Ask him what makes table tennis great, and he’ll flash a warm smile before responding, “You can be tall, you can be short, you can be skinny, you can be fat, you can be white, you can be black, you can be Asian, it can be sunny, it can be raining, it can be snowing, it can be night, it can be day. You can play ping-pong in all of those conditions.” 

***

Americans weren’t always hopeless in table tennis. The U.S. won 32 world championship medals, 10 gold, in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s1, tangible illustrations of what Kaye calls “an incredibly rich tradition of the sport in the United States.”

But that number can be a little misleading. Only 10 or so countries competed in those early, European-based tournaments, with many now-preeminent Asian nations left out due to some combination of organizational issues, transportation difficulties and geopolitics. China, for example, didn’t join the fray until 1953, and over the next two decades, Chinese and Japanese athletes would win 21 of 24 possible singles golds. The U.S., meanwhile, was left swinging from behind.

Of course, that all could’ve changed with ping-pong diplomacy, when the American table tennis team visited Communist China in 1971. A photo of Team USA on the Great Wall graced the cover of TIME Magazine, the most notable example of ardent media coverage of the exchange. A newfound interest in the sport spread across America, but USA Table Tennis wasn’t able to capitalize on the buzz.

“Our big challenge in the U.S. was we were really still an amateur, local, recreational sport, or a game even,” laments O’Neill, who’s now the media specialist for USATT and an Olympic analyst for NBC. “It overwhelmed our system. We weren’t able to take full advantage [of ping-pong diplomacy] ‘cause we had no infrastructure. I mean, people would play once a week at an elementary school cafeteria. They’d have five tables that they’d set up, and all of a sudden you’d have an influx of maybe 50,000 people that wanted to play, but we couldn’t embrace or we couldn’t handle that. So the sport kind of went back to its slower or its smaller roots.”

Fast forward to today, and the U.S. hasn’t earned a worldwide medal since a 1959 tie for bronze in men’s singles.

A birdie and a ball

 

Howard Bach thought he had a shot. The 2005 world champion in badminton men’s doubles was competing in the 2012 London Olympics with his old partner, Tony Gunawan, a legend in the sport who had won gold in 2000 for his native Indonesia. They were inarguably the most decorated pair the U.S. had ever sent to the Games. Problem was, they were also inarguably past their primes, with Bach at 33 and Gunawan at 37.

Although Gunawan had moved to America in 2002, the baroque requirements of U.S. immigration prevented him from becoming a citizen until 2011. While the Badminton World Federation allowed Gunawan to represent his chosen home without proof of citizenship---the world championship was officially a win for Team USA---the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not, forestalling an Olympic appearance.

“2005, fast forward to 2012, so that’s another seven years, right?” Bach’s wistfulness cuts through the whipping wind as he talks by phone from a fishing boat in California’s Bay Area. “I mean, I wish I could kind of rewind and take those years back... If we could’ve qualified in 2008, then our situation might’ve been a little different. We still could’ve peaked together within that time period.”

The CEO of USA Badminton, Dan Cloppas, echoes that sentiment. “If Tony and Howard could’ve made Beijing instead of London, they’d have been a lot more competitive,” he says. “We tried everything possible to get Tony a citizenship. We tried congressmen, we tried tons of things, but you can’t speed it up.”

In London, Bach’s third Summer Games---he played with other partners in Athens and Beijing2---he remained hopeful despite his age.

“I was back with Tony, so it was always a blessing even though we were not in our primes,” says Bach. “We were still the underdogs, always underdogs. Nonetheless, out of the three Olympics, I felt like 2012 was still my best chance of winning.”

But the former champs found the same misfortune as all the other American badminton Olympians since the sport joined the Games in 1992. They were swept out of the tournament in the group stage, losing all three of their matches.

***

Matt Ryan’s team handball career happened by accident.

He was in the gym in 1987, playing basketball for LIU-Post, when a team handball recruiter walked onto the court looking for talent. Ryan, a former New York State Mr. Basketball, still remembers the pitch: “Play handball, see the world.”

Before long, Ryan was at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, going through what he calls “an NFL-style combine” in a tryout for Team USA. In 1996, Ryan’s sole Olympics, he was captain of a team that finished ninth of twelve overall.

In America, the word handball typically connotes a different sport---one involving a blue rubber ball and a concrete wall---instead of the decidedly European game that can be described as water polo without the water or soccer with your hands.

“Nobody knew what team handball was about; they still don’t in a lot of respects,” says Dennis Berkholtz, a member of the U.S. team handball squad for the sport’s first Olympics, the 1972 Munich Games.3

“We trained for a year and a half to prepare,” recalls Berkholtz, who like Ryan played college hoops and discovered team handball as an adult. “We had really really good athletes… But we could never win because we were thrown up against guys that played when they were kids…I grew up in the Michael Jordan era, and they all said you could get Jordan and Barkley and all these guys together, and the answer is they wouldn’t win either.”  

The same rings true today, and the proof is in the results. The U.S. men’s and women’s teams both failed to qualify for Rio. In fact, USA Team Handball hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 1996.

***

Badminton and team handball don’t have much in common, at least stateside, besides futility, misunderstanding and a distinct foreignness. The former---codified in England after the Duke of Beaufort imported a similar sport from colonial India---is generally considered nothing more than a backyard leisure game; the latter---originated in Scandinavia and Germany---is hardly considered at all.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, more than 13 million Americans play badminton each year, 2 million with some regularity, yet there are only 100 sanctioned clubs across the country. Howard Shu, Team USA’s men’s singles representative in Rio, wishes the average American had a better grasp on what the sport actually entails.

“A lot of people don’t know it’s the fastest racquet sport in the world. We hit over 200 miles per hour off impact,” Shu says. “Almost everyone I bring to see competitive badminton is like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve never seen anything like this.’ And they want to try it... It’s not what a lot of people perceive it to be. It’s not just a backyard sport.”

As for team handball, there's no disparity between the recreational and competitive. There's just no room for that distinction, considering fewer than 1,000 people play the game here, concentrated in 50 local clubs. (Anecdotal evidence suggests some high school gym classes receive a rough tutorial in the sport, but specific statistics don't exist.)

In team handball, badminton and table tennis, the Olympic medal count is heavily skewed. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese tower over table tennis, having won 24 of 28 all-time golds. East Asian athletes also now dominate badminton, with 80 of 91 total medals going to China, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan. Meanwhile, Europeans still hold a vice grip on the handball podium, having collected 58 of 66 possible medals. 

Interactive map of all-time badminton Olympic medals

 

The land of opportunity

 

Wang Chen’s table tennis odyssey couldn’t be more different from Sean O’Neill’s. Growing up in Beijing in the 1980s, Wang successfully completed a first grade test of dexterity that earmarked her for China’s rigorous training program. She was a professional by 11---practicing eight hours a day and competing internationally---and at 14, she became a junior national singles champion.

Wang’s precociousness translated to adult triumph, in the form of two world championship medals (doubles bronze in 1995 and team gold in 1997). But when it came to the Olympics, Wang was left off the squad for Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000.

“I was ranked No. 4 in the world, and they only took three,” she told The New York Times several years ago.

After the disappointment of exclusion from Sydney, Wang left her sport and her country, moving to New Jersey to help her sister run leather goods stores and get a fresh start.

"I just wanted to change my life," she says now. "That's why I came to America."

Still, Wang didn't disconnect entirely from table tennis. She gave private lessons in the sport, eventually coming to manage a club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she was encouraged to pick up the paddle again in earnest and compete for her adopted home.

Wang qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics---a narrative ripe with poetic justice---where at 34 she reached the quarterfinals, the best-ever table tennis result for a member of Team USA.

***

The cases of Wang Chen and Tony Gunawan raise a critical point about the makeup of USA Table Tennis and Badminton. For years the majority of U.S. Olympians in those two sports were not homegrown Americans. To be precise, up until 2008, two thirds of the U.S. table tennis team and half the badminton squad were born outside of the States, mostly in China.

Many immigrated for reasons unrelated to athletic pursuits. Yet others, like current table tennis Olympian Yue “Jennifer” Wu, came explicitly to chase Olympic dreams, hoping to represent a country more forgiving to their talents than their homelands.

Comedian Judah Friedlander and Olympian Jennifer Wu: odd couple, great team
 

It's fair to question whether a medal won by a transplant would carry the same significance as one earned by a born and bred American.

“It’s a very relevant discussion going on in our community right now, whether foreign-born players are really good for uplifting the system,” says USATT CEO Kaye.

Transplants can be a double-edged sword; they take away opportunities from homegrown athletes while forcing them to get better. Kaye recognizes that “it could be a disincentive for young players growing up, where they have to compete with players maybe coming in from China or Japan or wherever, but I also believe that if you’re gonna be an Olympic athlete, you have to be the best, and to be the best, you have to beat who’s in front of you…. We should have the best people representing our country, and whether you’re born in the United States or born in China, I’m not sure it makes a big difference to me.”

Lily Zhang, the current Olympian, agrees. “America’s the land of opportunity, right?” Zhang says. “They have dreams too, and they have goals, and they’re also helping improve U.S. table tennis.”

 

Must be the money

 

If there’s one throughline binding table tennis, badminton and team handball, it’s money, or the lack thereof. That’s arguably the main reason why success continues to prove so elusive.

Due to financial limitations, these sports’ National Governing Bodies sometimes have to piece together their organizations as if they were the Average Joes from “Dodgeball.”

When I first started reporting this story, I had difficulty getting a hold of the USA Badminton communications specialist because he was busy traveling for his primary job with U.S. Figure Skating. He was apparently asked to help out with badminton on the side.

“We’ve got a staff of three for our National Governing Body,” says Cloppas, the USA Badminton CEO. “So we double up at a lot of things. Our bookkeeper is also our membership person. Our head coach is also head of high performance. When you’ve only got three people, you’re barely keeping your head above water most of the time.”

In USA Team Handball’s national office, CEO Mike Cavanaugh is the only full-time employee. “I’ve got a volunteer membership director, who happens to be on the men’s national team,” he says. “I’ve got a part-time, about six hours a week, accountant… We’re just trying to hold it together.”

The United States Olympic Committee helps fund 39 National Governing Bodies (NGB) for Olympic sports. Only one NGB receives less money than USA Table Tennis, Badminton or Team Handball, and that’s golf, which was just added to the Summer Games program for 2016. Last year, table tennis got $201,232, badminton $137,270 and team handball $106,554; for comparison, swimming was given $3,242,050 and shooting received $2,531,565.4

The USOC bases its funding on medal chances, pure and simple. There used to be a baseline amount of funding available to every NGB (in the annual ballpark of $250K), as well as more money coming in from a joint marketing agreement, but that wellspring dried up over the past decade. Or rather, that wellspring was cut off, siphoned toward more-successful sports as the USOC pivoted from a focus on participation to performance. There remains some “organizational development funding,” but it’s not much.

What’s more, table tennis, badminton and team handball used to have residential programs at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Those programs were banished by the mid-1990s, and the athletes now mostly have to find ways to train on their own.

So here’s the catch-22. It’s awfully tough for American table tennis, badminton and handball players to contend on the world stage without enough financial backing for proper training and development. But unless they contend on the world stage, they won’t be given that money in the first place.

“Funding is always a huge problem,” says table tennis Olympian Timothy Wang. “Being able to travel and compete and train is hard. When you don’t have the right environment for it, it doesn’t make it easy.”

Athletes also often have to head abroad---or even hold second jobs---to make ends meet, as there are no professional leagues in America for any of these sports. Former handball Olympian Matt Ryan says he still remembers the checks he got monthly while competing for Team USA: $208.33.

In a 2015 New Yorker article, renowned crossword puzzle author (and well-documented table tennis aficionado) Will Shortz was quoted as saying, “In America, you can win fifty thousand dollars at a beer-pong tournament, but only three thousand playing table tennis. It’s tough.” 

 

The kids aren’t alright

 

It can be hard growing up in America as a table tennis or badminton player, between the minimal resources, limited competitive options and social stigma. It’s not as if you can just head to the playground and pick up a spare racquet and shuttlecock.

“My friends a lot of times were making fun of badminton, like, ‘Hey, you know, what is that?’” says Howard Bach.

Timothy Wang stopped playing table tennis from 13-16, instead picking up the larger, and more popular, tennis racquet. “At that time,” he says, “I felt there were not so many people my age playing table tennis, so I wanted to try a different sport where I could have more young kids that I could relate to.”

It was not only difficult finding athletic peers to relate to, but also finding role models to look up to. When I asked Lily Zhang who her sports heroes were, she replied without batting an eye, “All China. All from China.”

“Obviously we would like our own Tiger Woods or our own Brett Favre,” says Bach.

And each of the athletes I spoke to said they hope to be that transformational figure, as unlikely as it might be.

“I have my own personal goals and my own personal plans,” Zhang says, “but at the same time I really really want to help grow table tennis in America. I think it has come a long way since I started, but there’s so much more to do, and I think that if I do well in tournament or if I could somehow get more media exposure, people will see.”

***

Almost no one grows up in America as a team handball player. Most of Team USA’s players are plucked from other sports in their early 20s.

Three-time Olympian Laura Ryan (no relation to Matt) ascribes her teams’ struggles---she never finished better than sixth out of eight teams---to the fact that Americans don’t play as kids.

“We had some truly good athletes, better athletes than some of the other teams,” Ryan says. “We just didn’t have the luxury of starting early enough and getting that extra experience.”

Another former college basketball player, Ryan’s team handball career started with, “Sure, why not?” Ryan, then in her mid-20s, was responding to a friend who asked casually if she’d be interested in coming along to a team handball tournament in Ohio. One thing led to another, and Ryan eventually became one of America’s longest-tenured handball players.

The almost haphazard arc of Ryan’s career is common for a sport that neither has a foothold in America nor a cohesive youth program. There have been various attempts to create a system over the years, but nothing has taken root or been sustained.

Dave Gascon, USA Team Handball’s director of high performance, boils it down simply: “It’s a chicken and egg situation. How do we attract the best athletes in the country to come play a sport that they don’t know anything about, that’s not indigenous to the country, that shows no prospects for college scholarships, that does not show a professional future for them, when the likes of… other sports are out there.”

 

Futility loves company

 

Futility hasn’t been reserved solely for table tennis, badminton and team handball. Team USA has won only one medal in triathlon (women’s bronze in 2004), two in field hockey (women’s bronze in 1984 and men’s bronze in 1932, when America placed third out of three teams) and a small handful in modern pentathlon (never gold).

Then there’s rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline, the oft-neglected younger siblings of the sport that made the Magnificent Seven into American heroes.5 The U.S. has never graced the podium in either, but they don't make our “no medals” list because the IOC views them as disciplines of gymnastics, not unique sports in themselves.

These “developing disciplines,” as USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny refers to them, are relatively new to the Olympic program, especially when you consider that artistic gymnastics has been contested since the first modern Olympics in 1896. Rhythmic gymnastics was added in 1984, trampoline in 2000, and both are still trying to carve out a foothold in the American sports landscape.

“When you look at the opportunity to participate in the mainstream of the American culture, artistic gymnastics and cheerleading kind of come to the forefront more so than rhythmic or trampoline,” says Penny.

 

Road to Rio

 

Looking at Rio, an American medal in table tennis or badminton would be more surprising than Usain Bolt not winning a race. In table tennis, the highest-ranked U.S. player, Lily Zhang, sits 94th in the world. America’s best shot in badminton lies with the mixed doubles team of Phillip Chew and Jamie Subandhi, ranked 27th. And USA Team Handball’s women’s and men’s teams---which, again, didn't qualify for these Games--- are ranked 25th and 38th, respectively.

“I would love to see us medal,” says Kaye. “I’m not sure it’s a realistic expectation, given where we are right now.” Everyone I interviewed was similarly sober about Team USA’s chances.

The U.S. table tennis player who performed best at the 2012 London Olympics, now-20-year-old Ariel Hsing, stepped away from competition to attend Princeton. Hsing says she still loves the sport but acknowledges the inherent limitations of pursuing table tennis in America.

“You’re at a crossroads and you kind of have to make a choice once you reach college age,” says Zhang. “The table tennis route, in the U.S. you still aren’t able to make a living out of it. So it’s not so much of a crossroads anymore. You basically have one decision to make.”

Hsing’s decision involves an investment banking internship this summer, a far cry from her Olympic experience in everything but the demanding hours.

You can play table tennis in college, badminton and team handball too, but none are NCAA sports. That’s a problem, say players and executives, who all agree that a robust collegiate system would be a huge part of turning the tide.

 

A light at the end of the tunnel

 

Still, cautious optimism seems to pervade U.S. table tennis and badminton circles, where there’s hope that the country is just an Olympic cycle or two away from contention.

This year for the first time, the U.S. qualified a full team in both table tennis and badminton. Despite the adversity these sports still face, things are trending upward. Take competitive table tennis clubs.

“From 1976 when I started to ‘96 when I finished, I could count the number of full-time clubs [in the U.S.] on one hand.” says O’Neill, America’s first male table tennis Olympian. “It was one. Now we have about a hundred… and I would say probably 75 percent of them have Chinese coaches.”

Table tennis has also become the sport du jour for many American celebrities, from Jamie Foxx to Jimmy Fallon. One of the sport’s biggest advocates is comedian Judah Friedlander, of “30 Rock” fame, who trains with current Olympian Jennifer Wu and plays regularly at SPiN, a “ping-pong social club” in New York City co-owned by Susan Sarandon.

“I kinda see table tennis, or ping-pong, in the same place now as soccer was like 30 years ago, where basically people are just starting to get inklings that it’s a real sport,” Friedlander says.

Meanwhile, Bach, the three-time badminton Olympian, now coaches in Northern California, where he says Silicon Valley’s elite have started picking up the game.

But maybe the most telling illustration of America’s advancement lies with the country’s youth, whom Kaye calls “ridiculously good.” Two years ago, Lily Zhang became the first U.S. athlete to medal in table tennis at the Youth Olympic Games. In April, 16-year-old Khanak Jha became the youngest male ever to qualify for the Olympics in table tennis. And the list goes on.

Of the three sports in which the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal, only team handball struggles to see a light at the end of tunnel.

"No culture, no television, it’s not in schools. What’s the pipeline for it?” says Mike Cavanaugh.

***

The U.S. table tennis, badminton and team handball communities know that they’re battling the weight of history. But there’s a unique sense of pride that comes with their tribulations.

“Pretty much my whole entire career was based around [proving that Americans can compete at the highest levels],” says Howard Bach. And when he won his world championship in 2005, he remembers, “it was definitely one of those huge testaments to myself and to the world that Americans can win.”

25-year-old Howard Shu says earning a badminton Olympic medal someday would be “the dream beyond the dream.” Whether that happens or not, he’s still deeply satisfied with what he’s accomplished. “To be homegrown and to go through our system and to make it,” he says, “I think that’s something that’s really special, and something that I’m really proud of myself.”

And who knows, maybe an American will shock the world in Rio.

Timothy Wang, borrowing from the profoundly American genre of the inspirational sports movie, put it best: “The ball is round and anything is possible. On any given day, anything could happen.”

 

1. The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was formed in 1926 and held mostly annual world championships---excepting an 8-year pause for World War II---until 1957, when the event became biennial. Back to article

2. Bach partnered with Kevin Han (a Chinese transplant) in 2004 and Bob Malaythong (a Laotian) in 2008. Both times, the pairs won their opening match before bowing out of the tournament. Back to article

3. Field handball was on the program for the 1936 Games, the only Olympics in which that iteration of the sport was contested. Team USA lost its three games by a combined score of 46-6. Back to article

4. These numbers aren’t absolute. There are ways for the USOC to indirectly fund sports, such as grants to individual training centers. Back to article

5. NBCOlympics.com considers rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline unique sports, but the IOC considers them disciplines of gymnastics. The USA Gymnastics National Governing Body oversees rhythmic gymnastics, trampoline and artistic gymnastics. Back to article

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