Swedish pingpong athlete is big celebrity in China

Aug. 13, 2008, 12:30 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Table tennis is the national sport of China, so naturally one of the game's biggest celebrities here is ... a Swedish guy.

Jan-Ove Waldner challenged generations of Chinese players with his creative style of play during a career that has spanned more than 25 years. His games were frequently shown on Chinese television, fans stake out his hotels and Waldner even opened a Swedish restaurant in Beijing.

"Occasionally there has been, what do you call it, mob scenes where he has to find his way to get to the bus or the car, for sure," said Anders Thunstrom, coach of the 1992 Swedish team at the Barcelona Olympics, where Waldner won gold in men's singles.

Though he doesn't match Kobe Bryant or Yao Ming in overall popularity, the sandy-haired, blue-eyed Waldner is beloved by China's many pingpong fans. He even has Chinese nicknames: "The Evergreen," a reference to his lengthy career. And "Lao Wa," or "Old Waldner," as if the Chinese were affectionately addressing a familiar friend.

"I feel that I'm always welcome, I'm like a Chinese player in the people's mind," Waldner said recently after helping unveil a memorial wall for former table tennis Olympic champions outside the Peking University Gymnasium. He is the only non-Asian gold medalist, and his Nordic looks stood out in the line of former champions who pulled off the large red cloth covering the wall.

Waldner has won a "grand slam" of Olympic, world championships and World Cup men's singles titles. The Beijing Olympics is the first time he will not be competing in the games since table tennis was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1988. At age 42, his body is not strong enough to compete, he said.

However, he's still keeping busy in the Chinese capital during the games, appearing at several media events in a polo shirt with the logo of a Swedish company that sells life insurance and other financial products to the huge Chinese consumer market.

That's just one of his endorsement deals. Waldner is also a celebrity pitchman in China for wood flooring, real estate and golf courses.

"Yes, Mr. Waldner is the most famous Swede in China," said Mikael Lindstrom, the Swedish ambassador. "I think his reputation will hang in there for years to come ... he's always an asset we have in mind when we have important occasions because he's so well-known."

It's no small feat for a pingpong player from Sweden, a country of 9 million people, to dominate athletes from China, which has a population of 1.3 billion.

The Chinese have ruled table tennis for decades. They're so good that the sport's international body passed a rule to stanch the flow of players who leave their country of birth to represent another country. At the Beijing Games, 30 of the 64 competitors in the women's singles event are Chinese-born, though only three play for China, according to the International Table Tennis Federation.

Waldner's success in table tennis stems from his ingenuity in changing tactics and playing styles during a match.

"I think if you take the Asian players compared to me, they are more like machines when they play. They always do the same things when they are playing," he said.

These days, Waldner's pingpong is limited to playing for a German club team. Though his dedication to the game is one reason why he never found the time to learn to drive, Waldner said he prefers the lighter load.

"In the free time I play a lot of golf, instead of table tennis now. It's more relaxing," he said.

When he is in Beijing, which he visits seven or eight times a year, Waldner often hangs out with friends at his W Restaurant and Bar, a sort of shrine to all things Waldner and the city's only Swedish restaurant. "Lao Wa, we love you," is painted in Chinese on the wall behind his favorite table.

The restaurant is filled with blond wood furniture, sports jerseys and photos of Waldner. The cover of the food menu shows a pensive Waldner, holding a cup of coffee. The cover of the drink menu features a mischievous Waldner, pouring champagne onto a tower of glasses.

Waldner enjoys playing pickup pingpong on a table with colorful Christmas tinsel wrapped around the legs. He recommends the eatery's signature dish - what else? - Swedish meatballs.

"I'm not cooking so much anymore. I'm taking the beer more," he joked.

Li Gu, the general manager of W Restaurant and Bar, said fans flock there to shake Waldner's hand, take a photo or get an autograph. Waldner is "really famous, not just regular famous," Li said.

"Sweden's not a big country but they are admired by people around the world for things like the Nobel Prize. They have what's been called the safest car in the world, Volvo, and they have ... Ikea," Li said. "But a lot of people might not know, Sweden also has Lao Wa."