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Noisy pingpong gym intimidates visiting athletes

Aug. 17, 2008, 7:37 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The fans get excited about doing the wave and cheer like crazy for Jingjing the panda. But nothing comes before their love for the Chinese pingpong team.

"We just cheer for China. We love the Chinese team, especially pingpong. We'll pull for them with all our hearts, they must win!" said 47-year-old nurse Li Shuping, sitting in her first-tier seat at Peking University Gymnasium armed with Chinese flags and sporting a stick-on version on one cheek.

When it comes to the national sport of table tennis, the flag-waving, chanting home fans can quickly turn the gymnasium into a deafening dome. They are a loud but gracious bunch, never booing any competitor but rather letting their screams of "Go China!" unnerve the visiting athletes.

"We're going to show the world, we're the strongest!" said Li, who flew to Beijing from northern China's Shanxi province to watch the Chinese team play for the first time.

When the men's team faced South Korea on Saturday night, the crowd began with the ubiquitous "Jia You!" (Go!) cheers and flag waving. But as the play got more intense - in the middle of the first match - they started stomping their feet and set off a deep rumble in the gym.

An NBA-style announcer broke in minutes later and riled up the fans even more. "I'm going to say 'Jia You' and you clap three times!" he intoned, while "We Will Rock You" blared over the speakers. "Now we're going to start the wave, beginning in Section 101! Are you ready?" The crowd roared.

Defending singles gold medalist Ryu Seung-min of South Korea had complained previously that the noisy home crowd has been a distraction and part of the reason he hasn't been playing well.

"Ryu became agitated by the cheers from the crowd," coach Yoo Nam-kyu said. "He was eager to win, he forgot his tactics, he has a tendency to do that."

During breaks in play, organizers sometimes bring out Jingjing, the panda mascot of the Beijing Games. Camera flashes and cheers fill the arena as the mascot half-bounces, half-gyrates to a remix of the 1980s hit "Beverly Hills Cop" theme song.

Peking University Gymnasium was built especially to host the Olympic table tennis competition, and it's topped with a glass dome that's meant to resemble a pingpong ball bouncing off the roof. Inside, as many as eight games go on simultaneously in the red rectangular playing area, surrounded by 7,500 spectator seats.

The relatively small size of the gym can create an overwhelmingly loud setting as shouts rain down on onto the athletes.

During a recent matchup between Hong Kong and Japan, the players were driving the ball across the table featuring dramatic swings of their wooden paddles. The excited crowd screamed "Hao! Hao! Hao!" (which means good or yes in Mandarin) so loudly it seemed as if the force of the cheers would blow the little ball away.

The crowd is pro-China, but they will cheer for any exciting plays. A fan favorite in the event so far was a rally between Russia's Dmitrij Mazunov and Nigeria's Segun Toriola. They cheered and gasped as the bespectacled Russian, who looks like a bookish engineer, crashed sideways into the blue barriers separating the tables while trying to save a shot.

When China isn't playing, the fans cheer for Hong Kong and Taiwan. After that, they cheer for the many former Chinese players now representing other countries - Chen Weixing of Austria, Gao Jun of the U.S., Li Jia Wei of Singapore, for example.

Foreign fans have to work hard to make their presence known in the gymnasium. A group of Japanese coordinated their shouts of "Nippon!" (Japan!), and waved fans printed with the word "gambare," (Japanese for "Jia You").

The nine men were executives or related business partners of Chugoku Electric Power, which employs Japanese paddler Haruno Fukuoka as a receptionist in its Hiroshima office.

"Every person is delighted to receive support, the big voice. The big wave, like in the USA baseball games," said Takeo Ishizuka, 46, general manager of the energy business department for Mitsubishi Corp. China Commerce Co. "The 'jia you' shouting of the Chinese people, we can defeat it."