US takes all-Chinese pingpong squad to Beijing

Aug. 16, 2008, 10:37 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Call them the Chinese team's hand-me-downs.

China is so dominant in its national sport of table tennis that a passel of its players, some unable to succeed in China's talent-laden programs and others veterans of the national team, flock to other countries for the chance to compete.

"When I was playing for China, I wanted a medal. A gold medal. Representing the U.S., I want it too, but I know the chances are slim," said 39-year-old Gao Jun, a silver medal winner for China at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Gao, who retired from the Chinese team then resurrected her career after immigrating to the States in 1994, is not alone in coming home to compete at the Beijing Olympics. The entire U.S. squad is Chinese-born. So are the Singapore and Hong Kong teams and the Australian women's side.

From Tan Ruiwu of Croatia to Qian Lian of the Dominican Republic, the table tennis event at the games showcases not only China's dominance but also the lack of strong foreign players.

In the women's team event, 48 players represent 16 countries. Twenty-eight of those athletes are Chinese-born, but only three are playing for China. In the men's competition, 14 of the 48 athletes are Chinese-born - again, with only three representing the host nation.

Austria's Liu Jia left Beijing at age 15 to play in Europe, but like other former Chinese athletes, has received a warm reception in the Chinese capital.

"It still feels like coming back to the motherland. A lot of the fans support us and we feel it's like coming home, it gives us strength," she said this week.

Her teammate Li Qiangbing is also from Beijing; she is the daughter of Li Xiaodong, a coach for the Chinese men's team. Also, Singapore coach Liu Guodong is the older brother of Chinese coach Liu Guoliang.

While it may seem strange that Chinese fans would cheer for athletes who in a sense turned their backs on their native country, Gao explained there's no problem as long as there's no threat to the Chinese team. None of the best players leave China; rather, they're often ones who languished on the national team practice squad or provincial-level teams.

Gao counts among her teammates Wang Chen, 34, also a former Chinese national team member. "Everyone who watches pingpong knows that we're not young athletes," Gao said.

"We're OK but our abilities are much lower than the Chinese team," she said. "I represented China in the past and after I retired I went to the States. So they can understand that. They have a lot of good players so it doesn't matter."

The International Table Tennis Federation has taken steps to encourage national associations to develop rather than import talent.

According to a rule that goes into effect after the Beijing Games, players 21 or older will no longer be permitted to switch to a new country or association at world table tennis events. Athletes younger than 21 can switch, but only after a waiting period of three to seven years. The regulation covers world cups and world championships and does not affect Olympic eligibility.

It's just the latest effort to stop Chinese players from steamrolling the competition. In the past, the size of the pingpong ball was increased slightly to slow the play. The final score was lowered from 21 to 11, to give opponents a better chance to win.

Jan-Ove Waldner, a Swedish pingpong star with a career that has lasted more than 25 years, praised the latest rule.

"I think it's good because you have to compete with the Chinese, the normal Chinese who are playing in China, but now we (also) have to compete with Chinese players even for Norway, Finland, Austria. All countries have three or four," he said.

Waldner attributed China's dominance to the popularity of the game in the world's most populous country. The result is an overwhelming number of players and opportunities.

"You have so many good trainers, possibilities to be a good player in China," he said. "It's ... like Brazil in football. If it's a Brazilian player, they're always good. If it's a Chinese player, he's always good."

Gao, the American, has found it difficult to find good coaches or anyone at her level to train with in the U.S. So for the past few years, she has been living in Shanghai, where she continues to hone her skills with a top college team.

"Of course, they're far from the Chinese national team but compared to the U.S., they're much better," she said.

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