China axes table tennis trip after players protest over coach’s removal

Move comes after some team members staged no-show at home tournament after Liu Guoliang was reassigned

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 June, 2017, 11:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 June, 2017, 11:51pm

China’s star-studded men’s table tennis team has been withdrawn from next week’s Australian Open following a protest by some of its members over the removal of their coach.

The Chinese Table Tennis ­Association said on Thursday that the players were “too tired” and not physically ready to compete in the Gold Coast tournament, which offers total prize money of US$400,000. It said it had “communicated” with the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) on the matter.

China dominates the sport, with its players occupying the top four spots on the world rankings by the ITTF. Three of those players, Xu Xin, Fan Zhendong and Ma Long – all of whom said on social media that they had voluntarily withdrawn from the event – were due to compete at the Australian Open, and their ­absence will be a blow for the tournament and fans.

“It is unfortunate that the decision was made to withdraw the entire men’s team of Zhang Jike, Fan Zhendong, ­Xu Xin, Yan An, Liang Jingkun and Lin Gaoyuan from the Australian Open,” event organiser ITTF said. “The men’s team cancellation is disappointing news for all table tennis fans around the world.”

Xu, Fan and Ma made headlines when they decided not to compete in their second-round singles matches at the ITTF World Tour Platinum China Open in Chengdu last Friday, in protest over the removal of national coach Liu Guoliang.

Liu – a former grand slam champion – is well respected and his sudden removal as national coach in a restructuring angered players. Liu was transferred to the position of deputy chairman of the table tennis association, Xinhua reported.

On the day of the protest, the three players put up identical posts on their Weibo accounts featuring a caricature of Liu with the line: “At this moment, we’re not in the mood to play ... because we miss you, Liu Guoliang!”

Their action was met with sympathy and praise on the mainland, where it was seen to show they were not just a gold medal­-winning machine but a group of caring young men who had the courage to stand up to authority.

But the General Administration of Sport of China, the top sports body on the mainland, condemned their action and told the table tennis association to ­investigate and “deal with the­ ­incident severely”. The next day, the team issued an apology letter saying the matches were forfeited by the players “on impulse” and that they realised they had damaged “the team’s positive social image of upholding patriotism, collectivism, and striving to fight for the glory of the country”.

On social media, Fan wrote that he would skip the Australian Open and instead save his energy for the National Games of China.