A silver medal in the men’s team event at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 has raised hopes that Koki Niwa could bring an end to China’s decades-long dominance of the sport, with glory in Tokyo in four years’ time.
For a man who is not yet 22, you would not ordinarily expect this amount of pressure to be placed on the shoulders of someone so young. But Niwa – born and raised in the port city of Tomakomai, on the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido – is no ordinary athlete.
In fact, such is the precocious ability of the youngster that he entered Rio 2016 as something of a battle-hardened Olympian, having already competed at the Olympic Games London 2012 at the age of just 17. Four years later, Niwa was celebrating his first Olympic medal after helping Japan reach the gold medal match of the team event, where they lost 3-1 to reigning champions China.
The beginning of Niwa’s rise to stardom can be traced to the Youth Olympic Games Singapore 2010, where he swept away the competition to win table tennis gold in both the boys’ singles and the mixed team event. Triumph in the singles at the World Junior Table Tennis Championships followed a year later, before his breakthrough performance in April 2012 when he overcame the current world no.1, China’s Ma Long, to become the first Asian player to qualify for London 2012.
Not that Niwa is resting on his laurels, of course, with his sights already firmly set on Tokyo 2020 and climbing up the rankings. “For myself, I still need to work on my world ranking,” he said after the team final.
“There are many opponents and athletes besides the Chinese that I have to go up against and gain a higher ranking. Therefore, in the next four years, I have many areas I need to work on, not just to lessen the gap between the Chinese athletes but also other nations. That's what I would like to work on.”
The future is bright for Japanese table tennis; with Jun Mizutani winning a bronze medal in the men’s singles and another bronze in the women’s team event alongside the men’s team silver, there is a strong foundation for the country to build on as they plot an all-out assault at Tokyo 2020 to usurp the all-conquering Chinese. And as one of the most exciting players in today’s game, you can certainly expect Niwa to be a key figure in Japan’s grand plans.