S. Korea to team table tennis quarters

LONDON -- In one of the most politically charged showdowns of the Olympics, South Korea defeated North Korea in men's table tennis Saturday.

The tense match was closer than expected, with second-seeded South Korea winning the team competition 3-1 to reach the quarterfinals. The two countries, still technically at war, were playing a game that has often tried to bring them together.

South Korea's Ryu Seung-min, the 2004 Olympic champion, defeated North Korean Kim Hyok Bong in the fourth match to seal the victory. Late last year the two played as a team in Qatar in an exhibition match to promote world peace.

"But on the court we are at war -- table tennis war," Ryu said.

In other men's matches, top-seeded China defeated Russia 3-1 to advance to the quarterfinals. China has already won gold and silver medals in men's and women's singles. It is favored to win both team events, which combines doubles and singles.

In the other two matches, Singapore defeated Australia 3-0, and Japan beat Canada 3-0.

On the women's side, top-seeded China and No. 2 Japan reached semifinals Sunday, along with Singapore and South Korea. China defeated the Netherlands, Japan beat Germany, Singapore defeated North Korea, and South Korea beat Hong Kong, all 3-0.

Sunday's men's quarterfinals will feature: China vs. Singapore, Austria vs. Germany, Japan vs. Hong Kong, and South Korea vs. Portugal.

Despite the political intrigue for the Koreans, the atmosphere at the 6,000-seat sellout was sporting, with warm applause for each side.

South Korean coach Yoo Nam-kyu, a gold medalist in the 1988 Olympics, said there is always pressure playing North Korea. He described how the two sides chat with each other in the athletes village, but on the court there is always tension.

"We are the same people and speak the same language, but politically we are not very friendly at the moment," Yoo said. "From the history we felt we have to win against North Korea -- because it's North Korea.

"When we talk, it's about everyday life. We don't talk political stuff."

As is their custom, North Korean players and officials declined to speak to reporters.

The Chinese have won 22 of 26 gold medals in table tennis since the sport was introduced at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In London, they've stayed on task.

"For now I have one gold medal in singles," said Zhang Jike, who won Thursday in a singles final against teammate Wang Hao, "but for me it's more important to win gold for the team, as the team event represents the country's honor.