Zhou 'admits' obeying order to throw match

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am

Coach's boast lifts lid on China tactics

Mainland import Zhou Mi last night all but confirmed she was ordered to throw her Olympic semi-final against teammate Zhang Ning at Athens in 2004.

Chinese badminton coach Li Yongbo has admitted he told Zhou to give up the fight, allowing Zhang to go on and win the final and make sure the 'gold medal ends up in Chinese hands'.

Zhou would not confirm nor deny the revelation, saying: 'Ask the coach'.

Li's admission, on state-run CCTV sports channel on Thursday, reopened the debate over mainland sports' deep-rooted malaise of prioritising national pride at the expense of fair play.

The decision was made after Indonesian Mia Audina-Tjiptawan upset the expectations of an all-Chinese final by beating Gong Ruina in the first semi-final.

'To ensure our finalist's full fitness for the most important gold medal match, the coaching staff decided that whoever lost the first set in the Zhou-Zhang encounter would have to relinquish the game,' Li told CCTV. 'Zhang was in better shape and when she took the first set we asked Zhou to give up the fight.'

Zhou, who came to Hong Kong last year under the government's Quality Migrants Admission Scheme and is hoping to compete in Beijing in August, crashed out in straight sets.

'It might be difficult for people to grasp [our philosophy], but we did this to make sure the gold medal would end up in Chinese hands,' Li said. 'I feel proud of our team spirit.'

The energy-saving tactics worked for Zhang, who rallied from one set down to a 2-1 victory over Audina-Tjiptawan.

Hong Kong badminton head coach Chan Chi-choi last night said he was 'amazed' Li would make this admission.

'I'm amazed the Chinese coach has come out and said this openly. I don't know what the real reason is for Zhang coming to Hong Kong, but I believe things like this sometimes happen in sports in China. Of course, such a thing would never, ever happen in Hong Kong.

'She never mentioned anything about this to me. The only reason she gave for moving to Hong Kong was her knee injury, which ruled her out of competition and saw her drop out of the China national squad.'

Zhou has climbed back into the world's top 10 and is fighting locally born Yip Pui-yin for the second spot on the Hong Kong Olympic team, but will still need a special eligibility dispensation from the International Olympic Committee.

'Everything is going smoothly with her preparations for the Olympics,' Chan said. 'She has made remarkable progress since she returned from injury last May. In the past 10 months, she has come from nowhere and entered the top 10 in the world. It is just fantastic.

'It will be a battle between Zhou and Yip for the second place in the Olympic singles.'

Former mainlander Wang Chen is the clear choice for the top spot.

Reaction to Li's revelation on the mainland yesterday ranged from silence from most state-run media to outrage in internet chat rooms.

'Shame on you, Li Yongbo,' said a posting on Sohu.com. 'We don't need gold medals won in this kind of fashion to fuel our national pride.'

'Nobody cared about how Zhou Mi felt at that particular moment,' said another. 'She trained as hard as Zhang Ning but was denied the equal treatment. It's pathetic.'

Allegations of results fixing under the banner of 'best serving national interests' is not a novelty on the mainland. The most publicised example was paddler He Zhili, who ignored an order to throw a semi-final to teammate Guan Jianhua at the 1987 world table tennis championships and went on to win the women's singles title. As punishment, He was banned from taking part in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

He, who later emigrated to Japan, told all in her autobiography in the mid 1990s, becoming the first Chinese athlete to expose the controversial practice.