‘Chengdu Three’ mount rare Chi­nese re­volt

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

China’s ta­ble ten­nis stars usu­ally de­mol­ish their ri­vals but they may be fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle af­ter mount­ing a rare chal­lenge against more for­mi­da­ble op­po­si­tion-their own sports sys­tem.

In a rare show of dis­sent, Ma Long, Fan Zhen­dong and Xu Xin-the world’s top three men’s play­ers-downed pad­dles at last month’s China Open in Chengdu, say­ing they were too heart­bro­ken to play af­ter the re­moval of head coach Liu Guo­liang.

It is highly un­usual for Chi­nese ath­letes to pub­licly break ranks with the state sports sys­tem, and fol­lows ap­par­ent at­tempts to cen­sor on­line com­ment, ac­cord­ing to a web­site which mon­i­tors so­cial me­dia in China.

China’s ath­letes are of­ten groomed from child­hood in an in­tense train­ing en­vi­ron­ment, bring­ing suc­cess par­tic­u­larly in medal-heavy Olympic sports like bad­minton, div­ing and gym­nas­tics-and es­pe­cially ta­ble ten­nis, where China has won all but four gold medals since it joined the Games pro­gramme in 1988.

Af­ter fail­ing to ap­pear for their sec­ond-round sin­gles matches at the China Open, the “Chengdu Three” posted mes­sages on so­cial me­dia say­ing they were too sad­dened by Liu’s ax­ing to play on. They quickly apol­o­gised, along with Liu-but the all-con­quer­ing men’s team was then pulled from this week’s Aus­tralian Open be­cause of “tired­ness”. Noth­ing more has been heard since.

The row has its roots in the sus­pen­sion of women’s head coach Kong Linghui, the for­mer Olympic cham­pion known as the “Ping Pong Prince” who is be­ing sued over a gam­bling debt to a Sin­ga­pore casino, ac­cord­ing to re­ports.

Af­ter an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion found “sev­eral deep-seated prob­lems in the (team’s) man­age­ment”, Liu was re­moved as over­all head coach and named as a vice-pres­i­dent of the Chi­nese Ta­ble Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion, the body said.

The prob­lems af­fect­ing Chi­nese ta­ble ten­nis come af­ter a shake-up in bad­minton, where Li Yongbo quit af­ter 24 years as head coach in April, fol­low­ing a pro­longed slump in form.

But pub­lic re­volts are rare, mainly be­cause of the strength of China’s sports sys­tem and the cul­ture of putting the coun­try be­fore the in­di­vid­ual, ex­perts say.

“It’s so in­sti­tu­tion­alised and it’s ‘coun­try-first’ and all about China and not the in­di­vid­ual,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of China Sports In­sider, which analy­ses the coun­try’s sports busi­ness.

“At the Olympic level peo­ple have been crit­i­cised for thank­ing their par­ents be­fore they thank their coun­try,” he said, adding that Chi­nese of­fi­cials of­ten want to “piggy-back” on an out­stand­ing sports­man’s suc­cess.

“In­di­vid­u­al­ism, putting your­self above the coun­try and the team is frowned upon, so when peo­ple be­come big stars and start get­ting in­di­vid­ual en­dorse­ments for ex­am­ple-rather than team en­dorse­ments-that causes a lot of prob­lems with the old style of think­ing.”

While open re­bel­lion by sports stars is sel­dom seen, one of the best known cases also came in ta­ble ten­nis-He Zhili, who later be­came the Ja­panese na­tional cham­pion Chire Koyama.

She was a star in China but did the un­think­able and de­fected to arch-ri­val Ja­pan, claim­ing that she had re­sisted an or­der to lose a 1987 world ti­tle clash to a Chi­nese team-mate.

Swim­mer Sun Yang fell out with au­thor­i­ties over his re­la­tion­ship with an air host­ess, and he was also banned af­ter his in­volve­ment in a car ac­ci­dent while driv­ing with­out a li­cence.

Ning Ze­tao, an­other of China’s top swim­mers, was kicked off the na­tional team in Fe­bru­ary for sign­ing spon­sor­ship deals with­out of­fi­cial con­sent. Bad­minton great Lin Dan risked the wrath of his han­dlers by dat­ing team-mate Xie Xing­fang-now his wife-de­spite such re­la­tion­ships be­ing for­bid­den.

GRAND SLAM WINS

The big­gest name to break free of the sys­tem is Li Na, who won Asia’s first two Grand Slam ten­nis sin­gles ti­tles be­fore she re­tired in 2014.

The outspoken Li hit suc­cess late in her ca­reer af­ter she made the tough de­ci­sion to go it alone with her own coach­ing set-up and or­gan­is­ing her own spon­sor­ship. “It still stag­gers me, given how suc­cess­ful she was, why they have not al­lowed it more and why they per­sist with the fear of los­ing con­trol and earn­ings,” said Dreyer.

Given China’s suc­cess in ta­ble ten­nis, top play­ers are house­hold names and the “Chengdu Three” have sparked much de­bate and spec­u­la­tion, trend­ing on so­cial me­dia for sev­eral days. “Only China’s sports ad­min­is­tra­tion can beat the Chi­nese ta­ble ten­nis team,” quipped one user on China’s Twit­ter-style Weibo, in a com­ment that was later deleted.

Re­flect­ing the level of in­ter­est, the statealigned Global Times news­pa­per pub­lished a lengthy anal­y­sis of the ta­ble ten­nis row. “While the re­cent protest ex­posed dis­con­tent with the na­tion­alised sports sys­tem, there is no deny­ing that in ping pong at least, that sys­tem has an un­de­ni­able record of suc­cess,” said the ar­ti­cle, prais­ing it as “a well-oiled ma­chine”. But it also con­ceded there was “un­prece­dented outcry and anger to­wards the na­tion­alised sports sys­tem that places col­lec­tivism first”. — AFP

From left Ma Long Weibo, Fan Zhen­dong Weibo, Xu Xin Weibo

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