Table tennis: spin when you’re winning

As the Dubai-sponsored Chinese national table tennis team prepares for a major tournament in the emirate, Vision talks to four of its star players about the challenges facing the sport

Recent international media coverage has highlighted China’s efforts to become a global force in the new Olympic sport of golf. Children as young as five are practising their swing on a daily basis at Beijing’s state run sports school, Schichahai. But, elsewhere in the building known as the Cradle of Champions, a more traditional Chinese sporting passion faces an Olympic challenge of a different kind.

Such is China’s dominance of table tennis since it was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1988 that 24 of the 28 gold medals awarded in that time have gone to the People’s Republic. At London 2012 China took gold and silver in both men’s and women’s singles, while at their home Olympics in 2008 they completed a clean sweep of both podiums.

Table tennis, China’s ‘national sport’, has played an important role in the country’s diplomatic and international relations in recent years, and it is also one of the bridges connecting China and Dubai through cultural exchanges. Dubai is now the sponsor of the Chinese national table tennis team, and the city will also stage the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals next year. The top Chinese stars, naturally, have their eyes on the prizes.

Record breaker

It took Zhang Jike, 25, the reigning Olympic champion, less than two years to achieve the grand slam of World Championship, World Cup and Olympic gold medal, a feat accomplished by only four men in history. Li Xiaoxia, also 25 and also a gold medallist in London in 2012, achieved the grand slam at last year’s World Championships in Paris, the fourth female player to do so. “It was a fantastic journey,” she says.

Liu Shiwen, who won her third World Cup in September, started training with her mother, a former table tennis player, at the age of four. When she turned seven, her mother decided to give her the opportunity to train professionally, so Liu moved with her coach to the southern city of Guangzhou. The men’s world No 1, Ma Long, started playing at the age of five. “I never think about why I play table tennis,” he says. “I can’t go without it. If I have a few days of not playing, I don’t know what to do.”

Traditionally, Chinese national sports teams have been run strictly and the players generally kept low profiles. But things are changing. Zhang Jike loves sports cars, often driving to training in his Maserati, while he also revealed his passion for tattoos by stripping off his shirt in celebration of winning the ITTF World Championships in 2011. He doesn’t see himself as a rebel though. “Everybody has his own personality, you can’t simply label a person by one word,” he says. Even romantic relationships are no longer viewed as the distraction they once were. “It’s different from the past,” says Zhang.

Zhang is a big fan of football. He is named after his father’s favourite player, the Brazilian midfielder Zico (Zico is pronounced ‘Jike’ in Chinese). His own hero is Real Madrid’s Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. Last year he was given an autographed shirt by Ronaldo, himself a keen table tennis player. “I watch football matches whenever I have the chance,” says Zhang. “But I don’t play much myself, I don’t want to get injured.” He later sent Ronaldo a shirt of his own in return.

Zhang is a handsome man and a popular figure on magazine covers and in adverts, with a huge female fanbase. But, as he says: “However good you look, you can never be a hero if you don’t win anything. The performance speaks for itself.”

Ma Long also has a huge following. He loves the cinema and his favourite actors are Jackie Chan, Stephen Chou and Jason Statham. “Jason’s action movies are brilliant,” he says.

In the spotlight

Media exposure and public attention on his private life do not distract Zhang from his table tennis. “The public wants to know you,” he says. “No matter what the media report – good or bad, positive or negative – I pay little attention to it and try not to be affected. It is good for a successful career and a peaceful mind.”

With their exceptional performances, Chinese table tennis players are now superstars to international fans and enjoy support from the local crowds wherever they play. “When I’m cheered by foreign spectators, I feel table tennis is such a world game,” Zhang says. The team is conscious of the need to promote the sport to a larger audience, and Ma believes table tennis is at a “turning point”. Because of China’s dominance, some of the suspense is missing from tournaments, he says. There is a need to attract a wider audience and more young players into the sport.

Dubai’s sponsorship is encouraging the promotion of the sport. “We are so honoured to be sponsored by Dubai,” says Liu. Dubai was the host city of the 2010 Table Tennis World Cup Team Championships and the Table Tennis Grand Prix in 2011. The ITTF World Tour Grand Finals in January is much anticipated by the players. “This time, Dubai will be our new home ground,” says Ma.

Liu was impressed by the enthusiasm of the Dubai spectators. With free entry, there was a big attendance and Liu believes this type of event could greatly help to popularise the game. “The size of the fanbase in Dubai and its level of passion was very moving,” said Zhang. “It is the first time we have cooperated with a city. Dubai choosing to do this with us is a kind of trust. I hope, through our constant high performance, we can promote table tennis globally, as well as the brand of Dubai.”