China's best export: table tennis talent

Yahoo Sports

It may be the greatest exportation of sporting talent the world has ever seen, ranking alongside the legions of Brazilian soccer players who have flooded professional leagues around the world.

China's monopoly on the world of table tennis is such that even its second- and third-tier players are unable to break into their own national team. Hence, these players seek recognition and success by heading to new pastures.

Twenty-one nations competing in the Beijing Olympics will boast players who have come through the remarkable Chinese table tennis system, which recruits players as young as five years old with the aim of turning them into superstars.

But for every one who makes it through to become one of China's best, dozens more become stuck in a sporting no-man's-land. Faced with the prospect of life as an also-ran back home, it is no shock that many choose to follow the cash being offered on foreign shores.

Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Singapore are among the least surprising destinations, but then there is the Democratic Republic of Congo, Luxembourg, Turkey, Australia, Ukraine and the Dominican Republic – all with Chinese imports in their Olympic squad.

View photo

USA's Gao Jun

Gao Jun, who won a silver medal for China in 1992, now plays for the U.S.
(AFP/Getty Images/Teh Eng Koon)

The United States have four paddlers heading to the Games and all four are of Chinese origin. Gao Jun, 39, won a silver medal for China at the 1992 Barcelona Games but is still ranked 25th in the world. She joins Wang Chen and Crystal Xi Huang on the women's team, while David Zhuang, 43, is the sole U.S. representative in men's singles.

In future years, the proliferation of Chinese players may be reduced. The International Table Tennis Federation is taking steps to limit the mass exodus of players, wanting federations to focus on youth development rather than splashing out on an import from China.

After the Beijing Games, players over the age of 21 will be unable to switch countries, and even younger players will have to serve a waiting period.

"The rule makes it more difficult for a person from one country to easily move to another and represent that country in a world title event," said Steve Dainton, the ITTF's Asia Pacific director.

"It was starting to get more and more ridiculous. How do you explain to the media that the continental representatives at the Women's World Cup that came from Oceania, Latin America, Europe, Africa and North America were all of Chinese descent? If this was to continue, then interest in the sport outside China would become less and less and this is not healthy for any sport."

Qiang Shen, an 18-year-old former Chinese junior champion, will represent Canada at the Games. Had he not relocated to Ottawa four years ago, chances are that he would be watching the Olympics on television.

"It is amazing that I can go to the Olympics," Qiang said. "Normally it takes time. I am lucky."

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