system The dark days of the Cultural Revolution may not mean much to China's current batch of little emperors, but the harsh language and punishments of the era occasionally echo through the corridors of the national team training centres. Intensely strict discipline is seen as an integral part of the success formula for all Chinese sports coaches, but nowhere does it go to such extreme levels as in the seemingly genteel world of table tennis. Chen Qi, an Olympic men's doubles champion, felt the full brunt of that policy this week. He reached the Asia Cup final in Japan on March 5 but ultimately lost out to compatriot Wang Hao. After the winning point, Chen threw the ball to the ground and walked away in bitter disappointment, booting a chair into the air on the way. Chinese sports officials, to put it mildly, do not take kindly to tantrum throwers and wannabe John McEnroes. Shocked at his unsporting behaviour they called a criticism session and plotted the young man's punishment. With language straight from the Gang of Four, officials came forth and said the star would be banished to a poverty-stricken area of the countryside for a period of a week or more where he would be 're-educated through labour'. Only through extreme hardship could this wayward soldier possibly realise the errors of his ways, they said. Secondly, he would be returning for another healthy dose of boot camp. Just like high school and university students, athletes on the Chinese national teams are occasionally conscripted into the People's Liberation Army camps. Authorities say these stints, usually lasting a week or two, instil discipline, respect, teamwork and a desire to do the motherland proud. Athletes are normally sent to the camps just before they enter the intensive training camps at the start of each sporting season. Those who fail to get the discipline message, like Chen, are sent back for another round with the drill sergeant, bulldogs in boots who thrive on humiliation and fear. The authorities also hit him in the pocket, fining him 10 per cent of whatever he earns this year in salary, bonuses, prize winnings and endorsements. The 21-year-old was then hauled in front of national TV cameras where he read out an apology with head bowed as he faced the nation. 'I lost both the match and my sportsmanship. I made a severe mistake and I created a terrible international impression. I apologise to everybody. I will resolutely reflect, accept lessons, work hard to change, train hard and try my best to get good scores and achievements to repay the motherland and society. I just ask everyone to give me another chance,' he said. 'I am not yet mature, in terms of either my mental attitude and my playing skill. I will learn to control my emotions in future.' His coach said that Chen's attitude changed after he won the Olympic doubles title in Athens with Ma Lin, with an air of cockiness and arrogance creeping into the young man's personality. Modern Chinese society was put in the dock, too. Liu Guoliang, the head of the team, said his behaviour was typical of China's youth, pampered only-children who have known nothing but economic boom times. 'The players born in the 1980s are too self-absorbed. They only think about themselves,' he said. But Liu also laid some of the blame at his own feet, saying Chen's attitude reflected a failing in the management system. He slapped himself with a 20,000-yuan fine, and penalised several other coaches who had worked with the player sums ranging from 10,000 yuan to 2,000 yuan. Chen's main coach, Xiao Zhan, was banned for six months. Making an example out of Chen helps keep the other players on a very tight leash, officials say, a classic Chinese case of 'killing the chicken to scare the monkeys', as the saying goes. Table tennis is a very serious business in China. The country absolutely dominates the game, which it considers its national sport. Officials and fans expect, even demand, the national team to make clean sweeps in every major tournament. And so often they do. 'Extremely strict management is the key to the success of the table tennis team,' said Liu. To get that success they brook no dissent, tolerate no lapses in concentration, and accept nothing other than a totally focused, positive attitude. They can afford to cut some stars loose. Athletes can find themselves crowned in glory one day, and steeped in humiliation the next.