Chinese face crushing pressure, from the top down
Table tennis is China's national pastime. Anything less than winning all four gold medals in the London Olympics is unacceptable, crushing pressure for a game that's seen in much of the world as a whimsical, rainy-day distraction.
Pressure? Everyone from President Hu Jintao on down is counting on a sweep.
Nanjing's Jinling Evening News, and other state-run media, reported recently that for the first time all six table tennis players at the Olympics will be Chinese Communist Party members. Men's coach Liu Guoliang called this an ''honor'' that would help the players improve by ''following the higher standards for Communist Party members.''
The Olympic field - compared to other big tournaments - is small, with a limit of two players from any one nation in men's and women's singles. Other tournaments allow a half-dozen or more, providing a cushion in the one-loss-and-out format.
''We are faced with a tough situation,'' said Huang Biao, head coach of the men's and women's teams. ''In fact, many problems are more challenging than we imagined.''
China has won 20 of 24 gold medals since the sport was introduced into the Olympics in 1988, and four years ago in Beijing it finished 1-2-3 in men's and women's singles, and took both team gold medals.
That can't happen this time. The International Table Tennis Federation has made rules change that may slow China. Only two players from one nation can enter singles, and the third qualifier for men and women is limited to the team event.
In another change for London, the singles events will be played before the team event. China is an overwhelming favorite to win both team events, which in the past took pressure off upcoming singles. This time singles come first.
The change is important since table tennis requires precision on a small surface where momentum changes quickly. The mental game is critical in a sport often described as ''high-speed chess.''
''In terms of mentality, pace, challenge and pressure these are significant issues,'' Liu said. ''They change our strategy, how we use the players, our pace.''
Any slip in singles will increase pressure in the team event.
''If one loses, the pressure travels to the next. The pressure is so great,'' said Ian Marshall, who will cover the Olympic matches for BBC-TV. ''The Olympics for China are everything. If you can win an Olympic medal, you don't have to work the rest of your life.''
If China has any vulnerability, it's on the men's side.
Zhang Jike and Wang Hao will play singles, and Ma Long will join them in the team event.
Zhang is the favorite for gold. Wang has been the losing finalist in the last two Olympics; he's regarded as more experienced but more fragile.
German Timo Boll, who won silver in the team event four years ago, is probably the biggest threat to Chinese gold.
It should be noted that London has a large Chinese population, and many fans are likely to be part of the crowd at the ExCel Centre.
As for the Chinese women, they have more depth than anyone else. There's also controversy.
Guo Yan and Li Xiaoxia earned automatic berths for the Olympic team. But in May, Chinese officials said Guo had an unspecified injury and replaced her with Ding Ning, currently the world's No. 1-ranked player. Ding and Li will play singles.
The third player will be Guo Yue, who advanced from an Asian qualification tournament. She will play only the team event, pairing with Li to form the world's top doubles team.
Guo Yan, who has been one of China's top players for more than a decade, seemed to accept her fate in a recent interview broadcast on state media.
''Now that the coaches and team leaders have made their decision ... it is completely acceptable,'' she said. ''It's not that I don't have the capability to compete, but there may be needs of the team and other needs in the bigger picture.''
Non-Chinese players to watch: Tie Yana of Hong Kong and Kim Kyung-ah of South Korea.
The draw is critical and takes place just days before the Olympics start. The top 16-ranked players sit out until the third round, with lesser players starting in the preliminary, first and second round.
''Our competitors do not have the same pressure,'' Huang said. ''If they win, that's a bonus. If they lose, that's expected.''
Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.
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Men's singles: Zhang Jike, China; Wang Hao, China; Timo Boll, Germany.
Women's singles: Ding Ning, China; Li Xiaoxia, China; Kim Kyung-ah, South Korea.
Men's team: China, Germany, Japan.
Women's team: China, Singapore, South Korea.