After winning two gold medals in the men’s table tennis at the Rio Olympics last year, the head coach of the Chinese team celebrated by cooking noodles for his players.
Photos of Liu Guoliang turning head chef with Laoganma’s spicy sauce (see WiC366) went viral, stirring reports that the stunt was actually clever product placement.
Yet that homely episode says much about why Liu has been so successful: he has instilled a strong brotherhood within his players, who have been winning everything available in major tournaments since he was appointed head coach in 2003. And via his extensive use of social media platforms, Liu has also helped the players become idols among the younger generation, according to Sansheng, a popular WeChat-based magazine.
But perhaps most importantly, Liu has been able to monetise the increasing popularity of the national team. Take Zhang Jike, a leading player and a crowd favourite (among female fans). Sansheng said Zhang made Rmb60 million ($8.8 million) in prize money and advertising income last year.
All these achievements mean that Liu has also scored points with the central sports authorities, who have talked about taking a more market-driven approach (see WiC336).
That’s why sport fans were stunned this month when Liu was removed from his post and “promoted” to an administrative role at the Chinese Table Tennis Association.
Following the news, two Olympic champions pulled out of the China Open in Chengdu in protest and issued messages of support for the former coach.
“We have no desire to fight at this moment… All because we miss you Liu Guoliang!” they posted on Sina Weibo.
Zhang Jike had dropped out earlier because of injury – but he published the same message.
The withdrawal of China’s leading players made Liu the sole focus of the tournament, with the crowd chanting his name from time to time. Obviously, the organisers weren’t pleased and the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has been threatening sanctions against the Chinese team.
“The sudden withdrawal of three Chinese players from the ongoing ITTF China Open is a violation of professional ethics and showed no respect to their rivals and the audience,” the General Administration of Sports of China (GASC) then warned in a statement.
“We have urged the Chinese Table Tennis Association to investigate the case and deal with it seriously.”
Regular readers will know that other stalwarts on the Chinese ping pong circuit have been courting controversy recently. Kong Linghui, the women’s team coach, was suspended last month after a Singaporean hotel sued him over a gambling debt (see WiC369).
The reasons for Liu’s removal are unclear, although Hong Kong’s Apple Daily has noted that the demotions of Liu and Kong could be part of a power struggle inside the sport ahead of the 19th Party Congress this coming autumn, when 2,000 representatives are set to elect the 300 or so Central Committee members (which then picks the ruling Politburo).
Ping pong and politics are unlikely bedfellows but both Liu and Kong are said to be close to Cai Zhenhua, a Central Committee member from the GASC, and Apple Daily suggests his position is coveted by rivals.
Politics aside, Sansheng reckons the way that the authorities deal with this crisis will speak volumes about how serious they are about reforming the state-controlled sports system. If the players are banned or heavily punished, it will indicate that the bureaucratic mindset remains in the ascendant, and that protests won’t be tolerated, no matter how valid the reasons.
Perhaps sensing where the situation was heading, the players posted a letter of apology on Sunday, saying that they weren’t fully aware of how the sport is being remodelled at elite level, and apologising for damaging “the glorious image” of the team.
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