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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF HKSAR -

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.”

PARKER ZHENG / CHINA DAILY

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.

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