It’s all chaos and bitterness in the Singapore Table Tennis Association right now.
Instead of celebrating the women’s national team’s silver-medal win at the Beijing Olympics – a win that ended a 48-year medal drought at the Olympics – and being the toast of Singapore, the STTA finds itself engulfed in controversy.
The controversy arose after Singapore’s top male player Gao Ning was found in tears after his shock 0-4 loss to little-known Tan Ruiwu, representing Croatia, in the round of 32.
Reporters later found out the reason for his distress: he had played his match without any one of the four coaches that the STTA sent to Beijing by his side.
One, Zu Haiming, was focusing on Yang Zi, another Singapore player who is ranked lower than Gao Ning.
Another – Chen Jian – was ill, while the remaining two, head coach Liu Guodong and Zhang Yong were back at the Athletes’ Village preparing Li Jiawei and Feng Tianwei for their quarter-final matches the next day.
But Yang’s match, which was scheduled an hour before Gao’s started late and went to the wire, so Zu was unable to attend to Gao on time.
When newly-installed STTA president Lee Bee Wah found out, she blew her top:
She said: ‘When I saw that there was no coach attached to Gao Ning, I called our team manager Antony Lee to ask him what happened.
‘Antony told me that the other coaches were preparing our ladies players for tonight’s matches. We have five coaches here. One coach was looking after Yang Zi. I think two coaches for two players are more than sufficient. We can definitely afford to spare one coach for Gao Ning.
‘We have to bear in mind that this is the livelihood of our players and they have trained very hard for this day.
‘The damage done to Gao Ning is beyond repair. His Olympic dream is shattered. Someone will have to be held accountable for this.’
– from “Why no coach” (The New Paper, 22 Aug 2008)
Lee had dinner with Gao Ning that night.
The next day, she dropped the bombshell – she announced that team manager Antony Lee, who was on secondment from the Singapore Sports Council, will be sent back to the SSC after the Olympics.
She also said that coach Liu’s contract may not be renewed. His future will be decided by the new STTA committee.
Both Antony Lee and Liu are miffed.
Lee said he heard of the termination of his secondment from third-party sources. He is upset because he did not hear this directly from Lee Bee Wah and because he feels that he should be given a bit more respect for what he has done for Singapore.
Liu is naturally upset because his future as head coach is now in doubt even though he has helped to deliver the silver medal.
Various national sports officials are up in arms because they feel that all these issues should be settled only after all the celebrations instead of coming so soon after Singapore’s silver-medal win.
The ongoing saga cast a pall over Team Singapore’s planned celebrations for the women’s table tennis team today. Even though there was a rousing welcome for the paddlers when they returned, no one can deny that the mood has been dampened considerably by the current saga.
Because the retelling of the saga above is already so lengthy, I will try to keep my comments as short as possible.
I am not going to comment on whether Lee Bee Wah was right or wrong in what she did. I’m actually more fascinated at what is being revealed about the previous regime in charge of the STTA (before Lee Bee Wah came on board on 12 July as its new president), the way it treats its national players and the way their coaches operate.
Observation #1: There is a hierarchy of Foreign Sports Talents in the halls of the STTA – first-class FSTs and second-class ones.
This has to be the obvious conclusion judging from what has been reported so far.
Clearly, our national women’s table tennis team takes priority over everything else. Or rather, their needs were given the highest priority in the build-up to the Olympics.
Why? Because they were the ones with the best chance of winning a medal at the Olympics.
Our male padders are poor cousins to them. So even though Gao Ning is ranked 12th in the world and is Singapore’s Sportsman of the Year, his own training needs and his ambitions of a top-eight finish at the Olypmics were sacrificed for the women’s team in the build-up to Beijing.
As reported in The New Paper on 23 August 2008:
The Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC met a distraught Gao for dinner on Thursday night.
She said: “He told me that he spent more than 50 percent of his training time as a sparring partner for the girls. This is not right. If we send the men’s team here, we have to prepare them like how we prepare the girls.
Gao Ning told me that he, like the girls, is also a Singaporean. He would like to achieve results for Singapore. His words were very touching.
– From “Liu to go?” (The New Paper, 23 August 2008)
And clearly head coach Liu Guodong is unrepentant about this. As The New Paper reported on 25 August:
Yesterday, head coach Liu Guodong defended his decision to spend more time on the girls. He asked a reporter: “Would it be better to win a medal than have both teams finish fourth?”
– From “Lee knows what’s best for her team” (The New Paper, 25 Aug 2008)
Let’s move on to Observation #2, which is…
Observation #2: Even among the women paddlers, there are the favoured ones and the not-so-favoured ones
This was very telling in the way Wang Yuegu was treated by head coach Liu during the women’s singles competition. She crashed out in the round-of-32.
This excerpt may be news to some of you. This is because it was reported in The New Paper on 21 August. I did not see any similar reports in The Straits Times or TODAY:
Wang lost 9-11, 11-9, 2-11, 8-11, 10-2 to Dominican Republic’s Wu Xie.
If Wang’s defeat came as a shock, what was more puzzling was the absence of head coach Liu Guodong at the Peking University Gymnasium yesterday. Taking his place instead was men’s team head coach Chen Jian.
When contacted, Liu told The New Paper:“I watched Yuegu’s match from my room in the Athletes’ Village. I can’t be with her because I need to help Jiawei and Tianwei analyse their opponents tomorrow by watch the video-tapes of their matches together. Their matches are at 10am tomorrow.
“If I had stayed on to watch Yuegu pay, I would have returned to the Village after 11pm. It would have been too late for the other two girls who need ample rest for their matches tomorrow.
“Anyway, Chen Jian was the one who has been overseeing Yuegu during the centralised training in Japan. So it was better for him to be by her side.”
– From “S’pore No 2 Wang in shock defeat” (The New Paper, 21 Aug 2008)
This excerpt raises some questions:
– Did Liu give Wang less attention because he felt she would not ave a chance of advancing as far as Feng Tianwei and Li Jiawei?
– Was Wang given less attention from the very start? Why was she not training with Feng Tianwei and Li Jiawei? I mean, why was Chen Jian – the men’s head team coach, for goodness sake – overseeing her during the squads’ centralised training stint in Japan?
– Who was overseeing Feng Tianwei and Li Jiawei then? Liu? If so, why was Wang not part of his supervision?
Observation #3 – This favouritism towards some players at the expense of others is a new development in the training halls of the STTA
It has to be – otherwise you wouldn’t get members of the table tennis fraternity expressing their disbelief at how Gao was treated.
Check out this very telling quote from two prominent and well-known ex-national players which appeared in The Straits Times:
Some members of the table tennis fraternity expressed disbelief of another sort: That Gao Ning was overlooked by his coaches in his hour of need.
Former national paddlers Tan Paey Fern and Jing Junhongtold The Straits Times that they sympathised with Gao.
“The absence of a coach shows that their focus was not on him,” said Tan. “The last four years he spent training has gone to waste. If that had happened to me, I would be very disappointed.
– From “Untimely and ungracious” (The Straits Times, 25 Aug 2008)
All this just raises a few more questions:
– Did head coach Liu neglect Gao Ning and co, and then subsequently wang Yuegu because he felt that the chances of winning a medal are strongest in the women’s team event, ad with Jiawei and Tianwei in the women’s singles?
– Did he do it for Singapore’s glory or for his own glory? OR
– Did he do this because of the monetary awards that come with winning medals? After all, it is a known fact that the prize money – in this case, the $750,000 that the women’s team has won – will be split not just among the paddlers but also with their coaches. Did Liu then focus only on Tianwei and Jiawei in the women’s singles in the hope that one of them will win a medal, thereby adding to his share of the pie?
Which brings me to my last observation:
Observation #4: Still waters run deep – there’s a lot more going on in the STTA than meets the eye
The fact that Ms Lee Bee Wah had a private meeting with all the Olympic paddlers suggests too that some beans have been spilled:
… Ms Lee had a private meeting with the seven players – four women and three men – yesterday afternoon without inviting any officials.
– From “Out – Singapore’s table tennis team manager told to leave” (The Sunday Times, 24 Aug 2008).)
Now we wait with bated breath to see what happens next – and whether any more new observations can be distilled from all this.
Of course, the pendulum could swing the other way – Ms Lee and the STTA could decide – or be arm-twisted into deciding – that enough damage has been done and to clam up from here on ie if Antony Lee and Liu are to go, no juicy reasons will be given in public anymore.
I have a feeling it could well be the latter.
No matter, I think I’ve already figured out quite a bit about the way the STTA used to operate before Ms Lee came on board as its new president.
Like I said, it’s fascinating stuff.
Yours in sport
Singapore Sports Fan