Gao Jun, a Chinese native, is America’s premier medal hope for Beijing
Interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal this week on the proliferation of Chinese exports representing other nations at table tennis at the Olympics. The gist of the article was that Chinese players, many unable to crack the ultra-competitive sport in their own nation, are hightailing it elsewhere and playing for other nations. The article noted that at the world championships last month about a quarter of the 170 players representing nations other than China were Chinese.
The coach of the U.S. team, Dan Seemiller, who was ranked 19th in the world 33 years ago (one of the highest ranks ever achieved by a U.S.-born player) was quoted as saying: “You go to a match between Poland and France and it’s just Chinese playing against each other.” All but three members of the U.S. team were born in China.
The trend had caused some consternation here and in Canada (six of eight Canadians vying for Olympic berths were either born in China or of Chinese descent, the WSJ reported) where critics said the presence of so many non-Americans on the national teams stunted development of home-grown players and undermined efforts to drum up fan support.
The reality is that two contradictory forces were at work: Our jingoistic desire to see “real Americans” wearing the red, white and blue and our desire to kick other nations’ butts.
Gao Jun, 39, won the silver for her native China in the 1992 Olympics, rising to No. 3 in the world. She quit playing two years later when she moved to Maryland but started again after a divorce. She returned to China to train (not enough good competition here) and is now our best hope for a medal in Beijing. She may have put it best in the article: “A Chinese player will beat an American player 11-0. Or the U.S. can use a Chinese player and maybe have a close match. Which way do you want it?”
As always we want it our way – which is both ways.
The debate is reminiscent of one that occurred a quarter century ago when American basketball player who weren’t quit good enough for the NBA ventured to Europe where they were typically the best players on the team. The Euro teams, who were restricted to no more than two American (typically black) players on their rosters, enjoyed having players who gave them the best change to win but they also seethed that these American players were taking roster spots from local players and perhaps the development of their own native talent. Sound familiar?
By now, though, we know how that played out. Rather than simply whine about the presence of the Americans, they went about the business of getting better. They welcomed American coaches, who shared the fundamental teachings of the game, to any coach who’d listen – in any language. Those coaches soaked it up and began imparting those theories to their own young players. Our coaches taught many of their young players, as well.
Today, foreign-born players are on almost every NBA rosters – maybe every one except the Knicks – and many are among the best in the game. You can directly trace the presence of Dirk Nowitski, Mano Ginobli, Steve Nash and an array of foreign-born All-Stars to those early coaching clinics led by American coaches. More important, you can credit/blame those clinics for our inability to with the Olympic gold in basketball for what seems like a hundred years.
In truth, the Europeans did it the American way – they learned, they worked hard and they executed without fear or trepidation.
Those who care about the development of American table tennis should do the same. Stop the hand-wringing and come with a lean to learn, work and perform. It might take a generation but at a time when our nation continues to evolve culturally and as our world grows smaller, whining just does not become a superpower.
Earlier this year, the International Table Tennis Federation took some first steps towards addressing the trend, instituting a rule requiring Chinese to wait seven years after residing in their adopted nation before they can compete in certain international events. The rule takes effect in September, but does not apply to the Olympics – for now.
I don’t like the rule. It unfairly targets a nation that has embraced the sports and takes pride in its development of championship-level talent. It unfairly targets a specific group of men and women who work hard to excel at their sport and who could still compete on the global stage, wearing another nation’s colors.
It also unfairly targets a single sport. Other foreign-born athletes represent the U.S. in various sports. For generations, opening our shores has also been the American way.
But not in table tennis, where, in reaction to the new restrictive rule, ITTF rules committee chair Rudi Sporrer said: “Something had to be done to develop youngsters …”
No doubt. But preventing them from competing against the world’s best was not the best move.