Ping p ng duo exemplify sport surge in HK Olympic medalists nurture younger players and encourage cross-boundary exchanges. Luis Liu and Willa Wu report.
Two decades after reunification with the country, Hong Kong’s sports sector has seen great leaps. Some 20 years ago the city barely had a noticeable presence in the world stage. Now no one would afford to ignore Hong Kong athletes.
The turnaround can be attributed largely to elite athletes’ fight for the city’s pride.
Li Ching and Ko Lai-chak are two of the most famous contributors. The table tennis duo won the Silver Medal in Men’s Doubles at the 2004 Athens Olympics, seizing the first postreunification Olympic medal for Hong Kong.
Two years later the pair made another breakthrough — wining a Gold medal at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. They helped establish the Hong Kong table tennis team as among the best in the world.
It was during the time that the city had experienced its ping pong craze. Their success in 2004 made table tennis paddles in Hong Kong sell-out. They were called the “Ping Pong Twins” and became local sports icons. Many young people started to play the sport and ignited their own ping pong dreams.
Having retired from competition several years ago, both have turned their careers to coaching. Li is head coach of the Hong Kong Women’s Team. Ko finished his contract with the city’s Men’s Team and became a prominent youth coach, working with local primary schools. He is mulling establishing his own ping pong training academy in near future.
Both are cultivating trees grown from seeds sown by themselves.
“The strength of Hong Kong’s table tennis now lies in the young players,” Li stressed. With active participation in various international tournaments and championships, Hong Kong’s young players improved themselves all-round, technically and psychologically, Li observed.
This was not just sweet-talk to his proteges. The city has seen a group of formidable younger players carving their names on the wall of champions.
In February this year, Wong Chun-ting, 25, reached his highest ranking — world No 6 in the International Table Tennis Federation men’s list.
The ranking surpassed all his predecessors, setting Hong Kong’s record.
Wong watched Ko and Li play during his early training. The two old boys played a big part in Wong making up his mind to be a pro, according to the “ping pong prince”.
Several promising young players followed in Wong’s footsteps. Mak Tze-wing, 18, won the silver medal in last year’s World Junior Championship, the city’s first ever finalist in this top youth game. Mak and teammate Minnie Soo Wai-yam won the girls’ doubles champion at last year’s Asian Junior and Cadet Table Tennis Championships.
T h e Ho n g K o n g t e a m’s improvement was not entirely brought by the influence or dedication of legendary players like Ko and Li, but was also built on systemic support from the special administrative region government in recent years. Authorities have greatly increased sport funding to raise players’ incomes, hire professional fitness coaches, nutritionists, masseurs and a top-class physiotherapist team, according to information from the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI), the city’s training base for elite athletes.
Exchange makes perfect
Moreover, Li attributes the success largely to Hong Kong’s integration with the Chinese mainland, which significantly increases the frequency and depth of exchanges between the city and the mainland.
Dominating the world table tennis scene for decades, the Chinese national team has always been one step ahead in development of the sport. “Years of experience demonstrate that only by learning from the stronger can the team improve,” Li said.
Thus the Hong Kong table tennis team is working on two major projects. One is to send elite athletes to Beijing for training with national-team players and the other is to organize training sessions with other mainland provincial teams.
“Such opportunities expose Hong Kong athletes to new environment, under which they face tougher training requirements and stronger fellows. Our local athletes learn from mainland players about their skills, and most importantly their de termination and assiduity,” Li said, adding that every time players came back from those sessions they showed improvements. Such training sessions normally last 20 days.
Exchanges are sincere, genuine and in-depth, Li said. He revealed for instance that the leading national player, current world No 3 Xu Xin, has played a part in the success for Wong Chun-ting. Both Xu and Wong are penhold players — a rare style in the ping pong world now as players with handshake grip show dominating advantage.
According to Li, Xu had helped Wong analyze his techniques after many international games in countless aftermatch talks. Wong had drawn lessons on how a penholder should maximize strength from regular trainings as well as matches.
Also improving the level of development of ping pong were trainings with provinciallevel teams. In recent years, the Hong Kong table tennis team invited players from Shaanxi, Guangdong, Hubei, Hebei and the People’s Liberation Army teams to train together in the HKSI.
The exchange not only benefits the Hong Kong side. With a high-level basic education system in place, Hong Kong athletes are “more educated” than their mainland peers, Li said, which enables them comprehend the games in “multiangles”. They have, in return, inspired some top mainland players, Li said.
In fact, Ko and Li were also the results and beneficiaries of this cross-boundary sportsman communication. They came from the neighboring Guangdong province in 2000 under the HKSAR’s Quality Migrant Admission Scheme after hitting bottlenecks at the national team. Hong Kong offered them a chance and a secure environment to continue their careers, in turn they helped grow the city’s sports development.
The successful experience was adopted by other teams. Official data show that 11 Hong Kong sports teams, covering fields of cycling, gymnastics, fencing, ping pong, swimming and wushu, had training sessions with mainland teams in 2015 and last year.
Bringing youth together
Meanwhile, Ko is also pushing forward exchanges — but in a broader horizon. Devoted to ping pong promotion and youth training in Hong Kong, he has organized a number of exchange programs for Hong Kong’s student players to mainland cities.
Ko found that the ping pong tours achieved overwhelming success. Participants have broken barriers that were said to appear between youngsters from these two different societies. They gained not only better ping pong techniques but, more importantly, friendship, vision and better knowledge of the country’s and Hong Kong’s development.
“Sports are sports but sometimes they are more than sports,” Ko said. He will continue organizing such exchanges for the harmony between Hong Kong and mainland. As he said: “Sports are the best stepping stones to mutual understandings.”
Li Ching (left) and Ko Lai-chak, believe that ever-closer communication between Hong Kong athletes and their mainland counterparts can not only expose Hong Kong sports players to a new environment, but also help them gain friends, inspiration and better knowledge of the country’s and the HKSAR’s development.