July 26, 2006

Punishment Scales in Chinese Table Tennis

Another Chinese table tennis player is in trouble. Three-time Olympic medallist Kong Linghui crashed his car into a taxi while under the influence of alcohol last week. The police gave him a modest fine and revoked his drivers' license, but Kong's punishment is probably not over yet.

The Chinese table tennis association said, through a spokesman, that "no timetable had been set" for team discipline. How bad will it be? It says here that it's going to be bad.

Consider a few examples from history:

  • Chen Qi's crime: he threw his racket and kicked a chair after losing a match to another Chinese player. His sentence included a public apology, loss of salary, military boot camp, and forced labour.
  • In 2004, four lovestruck (lust-filled?) athletes were removed, at least temporarily, from the national team. Female players Li Nan, Bai Yang, Fan Ying, and male player Hou Yingchao allegedly were engaged in "romantic affairs" with each other, and with other athletes on the team.
  • Qiu Yike was banned from all domestic and international competition for a year after he stayed out late drinking with friends.

As I pointed out in my post on the Chen case, the Chinese take a, well, pragmatic approach to these punishments when it comes to competition. Chen, the 2004 Olympic doubles gold medallist, had his drawn-out discipline interrupted to allow him to compete for China at the World Championships. Bai Yang's boyfriend and Fan Ying's lover were not disciplined in the anti-affair house cleaning. The two men who escaped punishment were Ma Lin, Chen's eventual doubles partner in Athens, and Wang Hao, the 2004 silver medallist in singles (and coincidentally, the man who sparked Chen Li's unsportsmanlike outburst). Chinese officials freely admitted that the two men were too important to send home:

Li, the association official, acknowledged that higher-ranked players were treated leniently. "We let the more important person (in the couples) stay because they have the heavier burdens and responsibilities," Li said.

And although Qiu is known as a very promising player, he is not yet one of the top players on the Chinese team, and is only 21 years old.

Poor Kong, a few years ago, might also have escaped serious discipline, or might at least (like Chen) have been allowed to continue with his competitive career. Alas, his days of heaping glory upon China are behind him now:

"He had already decided to quit from major tournaments and become a player-coach," the official said, which had effectively ruled him out of playing Olympic table tennis at Beijing in 2008.

On the one hand, that means that a ban or a suspension is more or less meaningless. However, as we saw from the Chen case, the table tennis association has a wide array of other techniques at its disposal. Who knows what public embarrassment they'll dream up for Kong?

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