New age restriction will force countries to develop talent

BEIJING -- China is almost certain to dominate table tennis at the Beijing Olympics in August. Its hegemony won't stop at the borders, either. Players originally from China will be key to the Olympic prospects of countries from Singapore to the Republic of Congo.

However, a new rule approved recently in international table tennis could change all that before the 2012 London Olympics.

Players 21 or older will no longer be permitted to switch to a new country or association at world table tennis events. Athletes younger than 21 can switch, but only after a waiting period of three to seven years.

"Imagine the Chinese football team playing Qatar and lost 3-0, and after the match we find the 11 players of Qatar are all from Brazil. How will you feel?" International Table Tennis Federation president Adham Sharara said when lobbying for the rule.

The federation believes the regulation, which goes into effect after the Beijing Games, will encourage table tennis associations to develop rather than import talent.

Table tennis is the national sport of China, the world's most populous country. A state-run training system that scouts players as young as 5 has created a talent pool with a depth that no other country can match.

Only a select few ever make it to China's national team, and others get as far as the national team practice squad -- but the also-rans find they can easily play starring roles for other countries.

"It's like American basketball. The second or third tier players, once they get to China, they're considered a top player," said Gao Jun, a former Chinese table tennis star who will represent the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics.

The Chinese Table Tennis Association has not officially commented on the rule change. But women's coach Shi Zhihao indicated that the abundance of elite Chinese players makes it a non-issue.

"To China, it doesn't matter," he told The Associated Press this week. "As a Chinese coach, I don't even think about it."

The talent imbalance is hard to miss, particularly in the women's game. The top 30 players in the world include 10 Chinese and 13 who are originally from China but now compete for other countries.

"It's just that the level of talent in China is so high. Of course the coaches will pick the best of the best. So when players leave, it's not because they're no good, it's because there's players who are even better than them," said Gao, 39, who won a silver medal for China at the 1992 Barcelona games.

Because there are so few qualified training partners in the United States, Gao lives in Shanghai and works out with a local university team. Though she represents the U.S., she does not even have a home there -- she stays with friends when she visits.

"If you cut out all (foreign players) and tell the Americans to play by themselves, you'll see what's going to happen to the level of talent," she said. "The situation will be that there won't be any team that can compete against China."

The ITTF rule change does not directly affect Olympic eligibility, but will be a disincentive to players leaving their home country as they will be ineligible for other events.

"We are not clairvoyants, but the intention of the rule is to make sure each association tries to work hard and develop players of their own," ITTF spokesman Marius Widmer said in a telephone interview from Lausanne, Switzerland.

The change in the game is lost on young Chinese players like Han Liu Nisi, a lanky 14-year-old who plays on the Beijing city squad. He trains for 5½ hours a day, six days a week at a government-run sports school where he lives with other members of the team.

His goal is making China's national team. He's never considered playing for any other country.

"When I run into difficulties, I can't give up, I have to improve my skills. I'll try to get onto the national team and win glory for the country," he said.