China’s ping pong stars should return to the table
Protests and boycotts by top players is unbecoming of a nation that’s the undisputed world power in the sport
To table tennis fans around the world, today’s finals of the Australian Open, a US$400,000 international circuit event, are most notable for the absence of the Chinese men’s team, indisputably the best players on Earth. It is not because they were eliminated in shock upsets in earlier rounds, but because they did not show up in the latest evidence of turmoil behind the scenes in a sport in which China has reigned supreme for decades.
Officially, the Chinese Table Tennis Association said the men’s team was withdrawn because the players were “too tired”. But Xu Xin, Fan Zhendong and Ma Long, who top the world rankings, took to social media to say they had pulled out on their own initiative.
There was no outward sign of what was to follow the removal in May of the national women’s coach Kong Linghui after he was sued over a Singapore gambling debt, sparking a social media frenzy. Not long after, state sport authorities shook up the coaching regime, removing Kong’s colleague and his doubles gold-medal partner at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Liu Guoliang, as national men’s head coach and making him a vice-president. In an unprecedented revolt, Ma, Xu and Fan plus two coaches all failed to appear for second-round matches in last month’s China Open, with the players posting online protests saying “we miss you Liu Guoliang”.
It is to be hoped the lure of fame and fortune has not undermined the patriotic unity and team spirit projected by China’s unbroken dominance. But perhaps personal ambition and loyalties are only to be expected in the wake of the multimillion dollar individual successes of the likes of basketballer Yao Ming and tennis player Li Na. Liu has denied foreknowledge of the three players’ no-show at the China Open. The huge Chinese fan base deserves a fuller explanation, given that the international federation has threatened sanctions on their team. Liu claims to support the coaching shake-up and has appealed to his former stars to put “winning glory for the nation” ahead of personal feelings. Given that the sport is essentially individual, it remains to be seen if old values, such as the team being greater than the individual, can be sustained in the social media age.