After China’s sports authorities relieved much-loved national table tennis team coach Liu Guoliang 刘国梁 of his coaching duties in a sideways promotion to become vice president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, three players protested, walking out of their matches at the World Tour China Open in Chengdu on June 23. The action caused a nationwide outcry online — many people criticized the “Soviet” nature of China’s sports administration that prioritizes the system over individual talent, although a few commenters accused the three protesting players of putting politics above sports.
Four days after the players’ walkout, Liu Guoliang broke his silence on his Weibo account (in Chinese) by parroting a line that could have come from an official in any part of the Chinese Party-state: “I believe that for Chinese sports, reform is imperative.” This echoed the call from Gou Zhongwen 苟仲文, the director of the State General Administration of Sports, that “reform will be the theme of Chinese sports in the future.” Liu also denied knowing the three athletes would stage a no-show in protest over his removal. “As their former coach, I am responsible for their reckless behaviors. I apologize to all table tennis fans on their behalf,” Liu wrote.
Meanwhile, the three boycotting athletes posted (in Chinese) their own letters of apology on their Weibo accounts over the weekend. “We’ve already fully realized the severity of our mistakes. We humbly accept criticism and sincerely apologize to spectators and fans. National interest is above everything,” the letters read identically.
On June 26, the State General Administration of Sports called (in Chinese) an emergency meeting to address the issue. The core message from the meeting is that “reforms must be enforced,” and “athletes should be clearly aware of whom they are playing for — not for a specific person, nor a specific coach.”
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