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Their eyes are always on the ball

Times Staff Writer

Anybody wanting to discover the secret of China’s success at table tennis need only meet Li Zhuoming, a 10-year-old prodigy.

With a paddle in his hand, he is bursting with explosive energy; off the court he is uncommonly poised for a pre-adolescent. He holds his 4-foot-11 body erect when he speaks and makes eye contact. Except when wiping the beads of sweat dripping under his crisp bush cut, he doesn’t fidget. Table tennis, known as pingpang in China, isn’t a game for the inattentive.

Zhuoming practically emerged from the womb with a paddle. His father is a coach; his mother a retired player, who started teaching him at an age when most toddlers could do little more than toss a ball around the playground. He now boards at the Xuanwu Sports School in Beijing, where he wakes daily at 6:30 a.m., for a rigorous curriculum that includes math, Chinese, English and six hours of table tennis.

And for fun?

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“Well, of course, play pingpang,” said Zhuoming, who acknowledges enjoying an occasional video game and the Harry Potter movies.

The game is taken very seriously in China. National champions such as Wang Hao and Wang Liqin command as much celebrity as basketball’s Yao Ming. President Hu Jintao told reporters this month that if he could be an Olympic athlete he would surely pick table tennis as his sport.

Since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988, the Chinese have taken home 16 of the 20 gold medals.

Not only do the Chinese rule at international meets, they are often competing against former countrymen. All four U.S. players here for the Beijing Games were born in China, including one who won a silver medal previously -- for China.

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“Without us, the level [of play in the U.S.] is so low,” said Gao Jun, who won a silver medal in 1992 and four years later became an American citizen. “They use Chinese players because they can get good results quickly.”

South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Argentina, Ukraine, Australia, Croatia, Luxembourg, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland and Congo are among the countries that have ethnic Chinese players on their teams, some of whom immigrated only recently. The dominance of the Chinese players has caused some consternation in Canada, where three of the four members of the Olympic table tennis team are Chinese born.

“There’s something unseemly about gold medalists who have rarely stepped foot on their ‘home’ country’s soil, who might not know the words to the national anthem or speak the official language(s),” complained a Vancouver Sun columnist recently.

In a controversial move, the International Table Tennis Federation in February passed a ruling stating that players 21 or older can’t switch to another country’s team and that younger players must have resided at least seven years in the country for which they will be playing. The rule, which the federation says is not specifically anti-Chinese, will take effect Sept. 1, after the Olympics.

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The Chinese have played a major role in transforming table tennis from a pastime of Victorian gentlemen, who legend has it used champagne corks instead of balls, to a sport of the masses.

It was embraced here and in other Communist countries as a “poor man’s tennis.” The game gained more luster when the U.S. table tennis team in 1971 became the first American sports delegation to visit China in years, launching the round of so-called pingpong diplomacy credited with warming relations during the Nixon administration.

Although many young people today opt for basketball or tennis if they can afford it, table tennis remains a fixture in Chinese society.

Tables for the game, often made of concrete, are found throughout parks and in public schools.

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“Chinese today have much more choice of what sports they can afford to play, but people still prefer pingpang,” said Deng Yaping, one of the most celebrated Chinese players, who retired in 1997 at age 24 with four Olympic gold medals.

The sport also does not require great height. Deng stands only 4 feet 11.

“It was a perfect sport for the Chinese physique,” said Liang Geliang, a former world champion and a professor at Peking University Health Science Center. “It is not important if you’re strong. You have got to be smart and you’ve got to have good nerves.”

After table tennis became an Olympic sport, China’s passion for the game turned to obsession.

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This year, Li Zhuoming left his hometown of Harbin, 650 miles away, saying regretful goodbyes to his friends and parents. He says he feels occasional pangs of loneliness on the path chosen for him.

“When I first started playing, it was very frustrating. Sometimes I cried,” he said, taking a break from working out with a jump-rope, part of his fitness regimen. “But now I really love it. It is like going to battle, but instead of fighting you are hitting the ball.”

The Chinese are often criticized for running Soviet-style sports mills, in which children are selected for particular sports based on their physique. But with table tennis, there seems to be a large enough reservoir of enthusiastic talent in the population of 1.3 billion.

“If the children love pingpang, they’ll be easy to train,” said Xu Zhichong, a coach at the Xuanwu Sports School in Beijing. “That lets them develop their own individual character as a player.”

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Bettine Vriesekoop, a two-time European champion from the Netherlands who lives in China, said that when she first came to China to play, she was curious about the secret of the Chinese players.

“Well, there was really no secret,” she said. “They have a very simple and practical way of training. They do three or four basic exercises, and then they play until they learn to play without making mistakes.”

China produces far too many world-class table tennis players for its top team. Those who can’t make the cut on the national team often go abroad, where they force out homegrown players.

David Zhuang, a U.S. player born in China, said the solution is not to ban Chinese players, but to bring up everyone else’s skill level.

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“The United States needs to improve the professional level of the sport to compete,” Zhuang said. “Bringing in Chinese players is a shortcut. It is the American way, isn’t it? Experts come in from all different countries and help to make America strong.”

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barbara.demick@latimes.com


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