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China's Pingpong Stars Find New Home Teams

U.S. Olympian Gao Jun returns a shot against Austria's Li Qiangbing during the World Team Table Tennis Championship in Guangzhou, China, on Feb. 27.
Teh Eng Koon
AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Olympian Gao Jun returns a shot against Austria's Li Qiangbing during the World Team Table Tennis Championship in Guangzhou, China, on Feb. 27.

For all four members of the U.S. table tennis team, the Beijing Olympics will be like going home. Each was born in China, including the team's top female player, Gao Jun.

Whether at home or abroad, the Chinese dominate the game many call pingpong.

But the global federation that oversees the sport is trying to create more competition.

At 39, Gao is old by athletic standards. A few years ago, she thought about retiring, but then China won its bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

"Olympics in Beijing — that's going to be a lot of fun," Gao says. "I think, maybe I can play and maybe I can go."

Gao used to play for China and won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. She moved to the United States to get married but says playing pingpong in the States is frustrating.

In China, pingpong is a serious sport and even watched on television. But in the U.S., it's more likely to be played in a basement.

"Table tennis in the U.S.," Gao muses. "I cannot say it's dead, but it's really no good."

Gao says the U.S. competition is so poor she has to spend most of the year in Shanghai to keep her skills up.

Her game looks nothing like the one you see in American recreation rooms.

Warming up with an opponent near her former home in Maryland, her sneakers squeak as she slides back and forth across the floor and she flicks her paddle, firing the ball at speeds of up to 70 mph.

As Gao plans to return to the Olympics for a fourth time, some younger players think she has competed at the event enough. Unable to make the Chinese national team, some older Chinese players often go abroad, where they dominate the teams of other countries.

Chen Weixing did this and now plays for Austria. He teaches the game at a pingpong center outside Washington, D.C. A student — 16-year-old Amaresh Sahu — admires Chinese-born players, but also resents them.

"I think it's good for us to see their styles. But I think for them to take up so many spots again and again, [denying spots to] the talented players here ... is just wrong," Sahu says. "And you don't know if they're really playing for us, or they just want to go play."

The International Table Tennis Federation wants to make it easier for people like Sahu to compete. Earlier this year, it made a new rule that foreign players must live in their adopted country for a period of time before they can compete for their new nation overseas.

But the rule doesn't apply to the Olympics, and it isn't retroactive.

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