Coach: Personalities Wanted
Chen Qi was considered a bad boy three years ago.
The table tennis Olympic champion threw his paddle and kicked a chair after losing to teammate Wang Hao in the final of the 2006 Asian Cup.
He was sent to work in a remote area and undergo military training for two weeks by table tennis officials, who said the penalty was made to "zhi bing jiu ren", which means "cure the sickness and save the patient".
Now, Chen is seen as a role model for the all-conquering but always poker-faced Chinese table tennis team due to concerns about the decreasing popularity of the national pastime.
According to Liu Guoliang, head coach of China's team, winning gold medals at international competitions is no longer appealing to Chinese fans. What they want to see are athletes with personalities, he said.
"The Chinese table tennis team has a rich history of 50 years and a tradition of strict management. It has helped us to dominate the sport on the world stage," Liu said. "But as times change, gold medals alone don't feed the fans; you have to show unique characteristics. Our Chinese players are not doing a very good job of that."
Liu was stunned by the few people who came to the airport to meet the squad a month ago after it narrowly defended its men's team title at the Asian Championships in India.
"I really didn't expect it (such a poor reception at the airport). It was such a thrilling match (against Japan) but it seemed no one was paying attention," Liu said.
He attributed the sport's shrinking glamour to the players' lack of personality and has encouraged more players to learn from Chen's example.
"Chen Qi may be a little bit 'wild' on the court but he impresses the fans a lot. We will try to help every athlete build a distinct personality and engrave their image on the fans' minds."
Liu has even cited himself as a good example. As the first Chinese man to collect the three most weighty world titles - Olympic, World Championship and World Cup, he is remembered by the fans for his distinct shaven-headed image to show his great determination in tough times.