Former China table tennis coach opens up after top players turn backs on tournament in protest
International Table Tennis Federation threatens to punish star-studded China team after three top-ranked men’s players fail to show up at China Open
The former head coach of China’s all-conquering table tennis team has denied knowing three top Chinese players would stage a no-show at a major tournament in protest at his removal.
Highly-respected Liu Guoliang, a former grand slam champion who lost his job last week in a restructuring of Chinese table tennis, apologised to fans on the players’ behalf.
But the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has threatened to punish the star-studded China team for the actions of the players, who also said sorry.
The sport’s three top-ranked men’s players – triple Olympic gold medallist and Rio singles champion Ma Long, 20-year-old youngster Fan Zhendong and Rio Olympic team gold medallist Xu Xin – failed to appear for their second-round singles matches at the prestigious ITTF World Tour Platinum China Open in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Friday.
Two Chinese coaches, Qin Zhijian and Ma Lin – a retired player and a former men’s doubles gold medallist from the 2004 Athens Games – also failed to show up.
The ITTF consequently said it was taking the matter “extremely seriously”, while the furore has been a talking point in table tennis-mad China for several days.
Now Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) vice-president, Liu issued a heartfelt statement on social media.
Writing on his Weibo account, Liu, 41, broke his public silence to say that he “knew nothing of them dropping out of the matches in advance”.
But he added: “These athletes and coaches are all team members that I had coached before ... I hereby bow and apologise to all [table tennis] fans on their behalf!
“This has also stirred public opinion, which has put me on edge.
“I would never impede the development of the reforms [of the CTTA] for the sake of my own head coach position and I will devote my efforts to actively pushing forward table tennis reform.”
The Chinese Table Tennis team issued an apology letter on Saturday, saying the three players, “forfeited their matches on impulse without fully understanding the details of the modifications that will be made to the management of the team”.
The letter continued: “With regards to the impact brought by this incident, we deeply realise the seriousness of this fault, resulting in negative social impact, letting down the love and understanding that the public have for the Chinese table tennis national team, and damaging the team’s positive social image of upholding patriotism, collectivism, and striving to fight for the glory of the country.”
All three players and the two coaches published the letter on their Weibo accounts as the team “sincerely accepted the criticism from all sectors of society, and apologised to all fans and spectators”. The Chinese table tennis national team said it would learn a lesson, and deeply reflect on the incident.
The mainland’s top sports body, the General Administration of Sports of China, last week condemned the actions of the team and demanded that the Chinese Table Tennis Association investigate the matter and “deal with the incident severely”.
“The act of forfeiting without authorisation and leaving without notice during a major international tournament shows no regard for neither the athlete’s ethical code and code of conduct, nor for the interest and glory of the country, [and] it is also disrespectful to the opponent and to the spectators,” a statement from the government body said.
“This kind of behaviour is wrong and we are strongly against it.”
Liu, who enjoyed a strong bond with the players, last week stepped down as head coach of China’s table tennis team as part of a management restructuring exercise, according to state media.
The 41-year-old, who won the singles and doubles gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, was promoted to deputy-chairman of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, the Xinhua news agency reported, citing the association.
Liu was appointed coach of the national men’s team at the age of 27 in 2003. He handed the men’s team coaching duties to Qin in April 2017 while remaining as head coach until this week.