By Steve Slater
LONDON (Reuters) - Young table tennis players from Japan, Germany and the United States gave a glimpse at London 2012 that they could challenge China's Olympic dominance in the future, in a tournament lit up by a rocking atmosphere, Chinese brilliance and a one-shoe winner.
China swept aside their challengers to take all four golds in London, just as they did on home soil four years ago.
A silver for Japan's young, attacking women's team - the country's first in the sport - and two bronzes for Germany's Dimitrij Ovtcharov, 23, signaled the Chinese masters may not have it all their own way at the Rio de Janeiro Games in four years' time, though.
"For the future China will definitely be challenged by these other countries but it's not tomorrow, it's maybe another three or four years before we can see that new generation coming in," Adham Sharara, president of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), told Reuters.
There was a blunt message from China, however: rivals need to up their game and work harder. They can even go to China to help to close the gap, several officials said, recognizing that domination was not good in any sport.
"I think even the Chinese are getting bored of China winning all the time. They are waiting for a close match," laughed Timo Boll, Europe's top men's player.
Boll fell short of hopes in the individual event but showed the way by beating singles gold winner Zhang Jike in the team semi-final, although China still prevailed 3-1.
China have grabbed 24 of the 28 golds awarded since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988, and 19 of the last 20.
Zhang's double gold was matched by his countrywoman Li Xiaoxia who, together with Ding Ning and Guo Yue, formed a formidable women's team that swept every match 3-0.
More than 180,000 fans - including U.S. billionaire Bill Gates and Britain's Prince Phillip - flocked to the games and created a raucous atmosphere.
"People tell you what to expect but never in a million years did I think it would be like that," said British second-round loser Joanna Parker. "Walking around at the end, I just raised my hand to wave and everyone went nuts. It was fun."
For 'ping pong', invented as an after-dinner game in England in the 19th century, the Olympics marks a rare showcase on a global stage, and Sharara said London 2012 had been a success.
"It has given us a chance for more people to see our sport. I hope there's a legacy in England as the game originated here and until the mid-1970s it was relatively popular but then dropped quite drastically. I hope this brings it back up again," he said.
The sport may have found new fans in Nigeria and Vanuatu too.
Nigeria's Quadri Aruna romped to a shock first-round win in his first Olympic appearance, sealing victory in a rally wearing just one shoe. Anolyn Lulu, ranked 931 in the women's game, did not win a set but picked up 19 points in a rare Olympic appearance by South Pacific island nation Vanuata.
If Lulu makes it to Rio in 2016, she may see players such as Japan's 19-year-old Kasumi Ishikawa, team mate Ai Fukuhara, 23, and American Ariel Hsing, 16, raising their game to challenge China.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)
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