From ping-pong to dotcom

Sports hero takes on the net

From ping-pong to dotcom

Happy to serve: former Olympic table tennis champion Deng

What do Gary Lineker, Nick Faldo and Brian Moore have in common? All three are sports stars who have built a second career in television. Lineker, an English footballing great, anchors sports shows for the BBC; six-time major winner, Faldo is the lead golf analyst for CBS Sports; and Moore, a highly-capped England rugby player, commentates for the BBC.

It is rarer for a sports star to build a second career in the business world. But China’s Li Ning has managed it (see WiC17). Known as the ‘king of gymnastics’ he won three gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and then surprised many of his compatriots by eschewing the chance to become a coach, and setting up his own sportswear brand instead. His eponymous firm has been such a success that its market share in China rivals Nike and according to its marketing director Fang Shiwei, has recently surpassed Adidas.

Now another top Chinese sports icon is hoping to replicate Li Ning’s commercial success. Last week, local media was excited to report that table tennis legend, Deng Yaping has been put in charge of, a search engine.

Deng is probably the country’s greatest ever womens table tennis player (and by extension that makes her the world’s best too, given China’s utter dominance of the sport). She accumulated four Olympic golds and 18 world championships before hanging up her bat in 1997, when she was then voted China’s ‘female athlete of the century’.

“The direction her career took after retiring from the sport is even more astonishing,” writes the China Daily. She first studied English literature at one of China’s most prestigious seats of learning, Tsinghua University. She then headed to Nottingham where she earned a masters in contemporary Chinese studies. She finally topped her list of academic achievements with a PhD from Cambridge (her thesis: ‘The Impact of the Olympic Games on Chinese Development: a Multi-Disciplinary Analysis’).

Her thesis benefited from a bit of field work too: she participated in the organisation of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic extravaganza as deputy director of the city’s Olympic Village.

She’s evidently crammed a lot into her 37 years, and now she wants to add a successful business career. At she will head up a new search engine that is a joint venture between state mouthpiece People’s Daily and its website It was recently launched to take on privately-owned web heavyweights. However, unlike the popular industry leader Baidu, it will search only for news.

Her appointment has definitely boosted public awareness of the new search engine. Shanghai Youth Daily says it has got 190,000 mentions on the web thanks to Deng’s halo effect. The appointment of a national icon to the role – one who is admired as much for her fighting spirit as for never losing her temper – has lent the project greater credibility in the eyes of many Chinese.

The South China Morning Post even reckons it’s a politically-motivated appointment, harnessing “her positive, modern image to benefit the conservative government.”

Deng is no stranger to politics, either. Last year she became deputy secretary of Beijing’s Communist Youth League.

But will she be able to make the search engine a commercial success? IT Time Weekly is sceptical: “Deng Yaping is excellent in table tennis and also gained a PhD in economics from Cambridge, but all this has nothing to do with the internet, let alone search engines.”

It adds that since was launched in July its impact has been “tepid”. It does not predict success: “It is not because we are not optimistic about Deng, but because we are not optimistic about”; it questions whether the search engine’s “technical strength” will make it competitive.

If it’s right, Baidu’s Robin Li may have little to fear – save perhaps for Deng challenging him to a game of ping-pong.

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