BEIJING -- Today Chinese table tennis superstar, world champion and defending two-time gold medalist Zhang Yining made her first appearance in the Beijing Olympics. The city has spent years grooming her to continue China's dominance of the sport.
Zhang came up through the ranks of a sophisticated, citywide table tennis training program. Now her fellow Beijingers expect her to bring them glory.
City sports official He Yi, 52, is counting on Zhang to save his job. His agency is responsible for the training and development of all Beijing athletes, including Zhang. His superiors expect Beijing athletes to win four gold medals, including one or two by Zhang.
"If we (Beijingers) don't win at least two gold medals, some officials will be transferred," He said.
The day before Zhang's opening match, He, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Sport's deputy director, had his office wired like a war room. He monitored two computers, two landline phones, a cel phone and a fax machine for news of Beijing athletes competing in the games. One of the
computers streamed live video of a soccer match while a television in the center of the office showed badminton.
He wasn't worried about Zhang repeating as champion. This time the podium is in her hometown.
"Zhang Yining is a cold-blooded killer," He said. "She doesn't smile. Her style is fierce and she never quits."
Developing commanding table tennis players such as Zhang is the agency's highest priority. The City of Beijing spends about $440,000 each year to train approximately 600 elite ping pong players. The athletes begin training at as young as 6 years old at amateur sports schools. If they are good enough, they advance to a semi-pro training center. The best athletes join the Shou Chuang Beijing table tennis team, considered by many to be the best professional team in China. And the most elite professional ping pong players from around China compete for spots on the Chinese national team.
The sport has been a national passion in China since Rong Guotuan won the world singles championship in 1959. The country was founded in 1949, and Rong's title was the first by any Chinese athlete since the end of China's civil war.
Rong's victory inspired millions of young Chinese to throw themselves into the sport. Today, the government estimates 10 million Chinese play the game.
Zhou Shusen, 67, coaches the Beijing women's team. He was an 18-year-old table tennis enthusiast living in Hangzhou, China, when Rong won the championship.
"I was pretty excited. I ran to the printing press of the newspaper to see the telegram (announcing Rong's victory). I knew the news was true."
With Rong as his hero, Zhou advanced through the ranks from his city team to the Chinese national team. As a coach, he's trained three world champions, including Zhang.
Zhou doesn't want to put any pressure on Zhang before her Olympic contest.
Says Zhou: "I'll just tell her jia you!"
Zhang and her teammates competed in the women's team group of eight table tennis event today. China played Croatia and won the match 3-0.
This report originally appeared on Oregonlive.com
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