China has lorded over the table tennis realm for longer than any of their challengers care to remember, but these days there's a whiff of panic emanating from the masters who sense they may be witnessing the beginning of the end of their dynasty. In Beijing, the oft-cited theory goes, the whole world is intent on knocking China off its paddler pedestal, particularly the 'obviously biased' folks that run the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF). A flurry of rule changes introduced in recent years has fuelled the conspiracy theories. In Atlanta in 1996, and Sydney four years later, China took the four gold table tennis medals on offer - men's and women's singles and doubles. And back in the old glory days, just to get up the oppositions' noses even further, the doubles finals were often all-China events that looked more like national finals. But the red tide was slowed before Athens when it was ruled that doubles teams from the same country would be placed in the same half of the draw, ensuring they could no longer clean-sweep the finals. Clearly an initiative to shackle China's superiority, Beijing argued. This followed two fundamental rule changes to the game that Chinese purists insist were designed to invite pretenders to sit on the throne. First of all the size of the ball was increased, and secondly, the scoring in the games was reduced from 21 points to 11 points - adjustments the Chinese say increase the chances of an inferior player scraping a lucky victory. And for the 2008 Olympics, the doubles game has been dropped altogether. In its place is a team event where three players will represent a country, playing one doubles match and four singles in total. This will reduce China's representation as they will only be able to enter one team, unlike before where more than one pair could qualify for the doubles. But what really concerns Beijing was the news this week from the ITTF that substitutes would not be allowed. In other international events a team of three can bring two subs, but this will not be permitted in the Olympics as the IOC has imposed a strict cap on the overall number of athletes permitted to participate in the games. If a player gets injured a team will have to pull out - a situation, China argues, that again increases the role of luck in the event and so weakens their dominant hand. In the Athens games, horror of horrors, China only managed to win three out of four golds, with Wang Hao losing in the final to South Korean Ryu Seung Min. Since then, there have been other signs here and there that China's grip might be slipping. In the ITTF ProTour event in Fuzhou last month, for instance, China's Zhang Yining won the women's singles, but no other Chinese player made it to any of the other three finals - the first time in the event's ten-year history that had been seen. For his part, the ITTF's president Adam Sharara insists there is no campaign in place to undermine China's position at the top of table. 'It's normal to think this way. Any nation that dominates a sport, if you make any changes to the rules of the sport, they would feel it will affect them first,' he said. 'But actually, not only Chinese players, all top players are affected.' Nonetheless, he can't deny there is pressure coming from the IOC to spread the international appeal of the game, a job that is made all the more difficult if one nation monopolises it at the top level. But while Cai Zhenhua, director of the Chinese Table Tennis and Badminton Administration Centre, enjoys hurling public accusations of anti-China bias at the ITTF, even he is admitting these days that some of the problems have their roots at home. For one, he's pointing the finger at the nation's one-child policy that has produced a new breed of players who have led pampered lives, rarely think for themselves, and lack mental strength, he said. Another reason China is starting to lose their iron grip is due to the fact the other nations have improved dramatically in recent years, he said, in part thanks to the Chinese themselves. When table tennis was first introduced on to the Olympic programme in Seoul in 1988, China was years ahead of the pack with an elaborate training programme already in place. These days other countries have similar efforts on the go, and former Chinese stars and coaches don't retire - they emigrate to sell their knowledge to nations that aspire to China's greatness. He may be paranoid, and then again he may be right, but the head coach of the men's national team Liu Guoliang firmly also believes the rest of the world is ganging up on him with an ABC attitude: Anybody But China. 'Normally each team would have tactics and certain training methods that they would keep secret. But for example at the moment our two nearest rivals are Germany and South Korea. They have a common aim, they just want to see China beaten,' he said. Politics is creating another challenge, he believes, as North Korea also have a very promising squad and they have agreed to enter a joint team with the South in 2008. That combined unit will be a formidable table tennis force and will certainly pose a considerable threat to China's eminence. Yet despite all the hand-wringing and finger pointing, China is still on top of the game and looks like staying there or thereabouts for the foreseeable future. But pressure is on: come 2008 the host nation is desperately hoping to build on its success in Athens by claiming victories in sports they have not traditionally excelled at. Medals picked up in these disciplines are a welcome surprise, but table tennis is a different 40mm ball game - the nation expects and demands nothing less than a clean sweep, which is a big burden to carry. Officials are trying to lighten that load by dampening expectations as much as they possibly can, but regardless of all the pressure and the politicking, not many would be inclined to bet their shirt against the Chinese paddlers come 2008.