One flick of the table tennis net would have killed the dream. One miss would have seen all the endorsement money wash away. One ball that clipped the edge of Table 1 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gym. One stroke where Jun Mizutani or Mima Ito’s aim was fractionally less than true.
If, on Sunday, one tiny thing had gone wrong against Germany in the table tennis mixed doubles quarterfinal, one time, one of Japan’s most cherished gold medals of these Olympic Games would have never happened.
Instead, the unlikely pair, a 32-year-old veteran in probably the last dance of his career and a young woman seeking to scale her sport’s highest peak, were hailed as national heroes after upsetting overwhelming favorites China in Monday’s final.
What follows? In Japan, beating China in sports is serious business. Doing so in table tennis, a discipline China has dominated for decades, winning gold at every Olympics since 2004, even more so. Mizutani and Ito won’t be buying their own drinks for a long time, if ever, though they could afford to now, with endorsements in the millions guaranteed to roll in.
This isn’t a column all about table tennis. It’s just that the sport of table tennis provided the latest reminder of how fragile Olympic glory, or indeed triumph in any sport, can be. If not for one minuscule factor, one jot of luck at the right time, one turn of fate, who knows who might have ended up as a champion and who might not.
In the quarters, Mizutani and Ito trailed Germany’s Patrick Franziska and Petrissa Solja 9-2 in the final game. They found themselves down seven match points and somehow managed to survive each one. Top level table tennis doesn’t confer any huge advantage to the server. In such a match between two evenly contested teams, each pair has roughly an even shot to win each point.
Which means, when they found themselves in a hole against the Germans, Mizutani and Ito faced odds around 128-to-1 – just to level the score, let alone win the match. Let alone win another and then the stun the Chinese duo of Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen. Xu is the men’s No. 2-ranked player, while Liu is the reigning women’s world champion.
“Absolutely mind-blowing,” Timothy Wang, a three-time national champ who represented the USA at the 2012 and 2016 Games, told me via text. “Coming back after being down seven match points is like making seven clutch shots in the NBA and the last shot being a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to win the game. Saving one or two match points happens sometimes. But catching seven of them is nearly impossible and then winning on top of that? It’s wild.”
Everybody knows about the Miracle on Ice, the 1980 Olympic hockey team’s Cinderella triumph, in which a bunch of college kids beat a Soviet team stocked with some of the greatest players in the sport’s history. But what if the Soviet’s hadn’t pulled star goalie Vladislav Tretiak after he allowed a soft early goal to the Americans in that contest, a move that changed the momentum of the contest? What if the USA had gone on to lose the gold to Finland a few days later in the final in Lake Placid?
There are dozens, maybe hundreds of stories about the miracles that didn’t happen. You don’t get to hear about most. Everyone wants to hear about gold. You get to say for the rest of your life that you’re an Olympic medalist. Nobody asks about the details, as they shouldn’t.
The vagaries of sports are what they are. You win at sports by doing what it takes to beat your opponent – score more goals or points, run, swim, row or cycle faster than everyone else, and so on. How tight the margin was doesn’t matter. Neither does how close you were to defeat.
There are plenty on the flipside, too. I saw a pair of them first hand at the Rio Olympics five years ago. At the track in Rio, Great Britain’s Adam Gemili ran the race of his life in the 200 meter final, where he was an outside shot for a medal.
Having only switched to track from soccer four years before those 2016 Games, getting to the final was an achievement in itself. In England, where track is highly popular, a medal in one of the prestige events of the Olympics would have had a transformative impact on his life. He nearly had it. But when he looked up at the scoreboard it showed he posted the exact same time as France’s Christophe Lemaitre. Upon further inspection, it was determined that Gemili had missed out on the podium by a mere three thousandths of a second. USA Today’ Dan Wolken dubbed Gemili “the most heartbroken athlete” in Brazil.
That same Games, the men’s doubles badminton duo from Malaysia, Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong, had two match points against China. A win would have given their country, badminton-obsessed perhaps more than any other, its first gold. They got to the very verge of victory but fault served each time, missing the line by barely a hair.
“We got lucky,” China’s Zhang Nan said afterward. “Malaysia had their chances to win and didn’t.”
On Sunday against Germany, fortune was on Mizutani’s and Ito’s side. The next day, the pair made sure not to squander the lifeline they’d been given. They’re certainly not going to apologize for the manner of their victory. Because to win at anything on the global stage, where lifelong dreams go to die in the margins, you need to be lucky and good.
Here’s what others have said …
Jun Mizutani, Table Tennis Gold Medalist: “China has beaten us so many times at the Olympics and at the World Championships. I think we were able to avenge all those losses here at the Tokyo Games. I’m really happy.”
Mima Ito, Table Tennis Gold Medalist: “I’m really really really happy. We were able to enjoy ourselves up to the very end because everyone, including our team staff, cheered us on.”
Liu Shiwen, China Table Tennis Player: “I had a hard time accepting it. I know all the fans had high expectations for this final. It doesn’t matter what happened before the final, people will only remember who’s the champion and who stands at the top of the podium. I think this result to the team is unacceptable.”