Beijing School Trains China’s Future Ping-Pong Champions
Chen Xubin just turned seven. His favorite part of playing ping-pong is hitting the ball. He is missing his two front teeth and his face barely reaches above the table. Yet he regularly beats children almost twice his age. Chen has lived at the Xian Nongtan Sports Training School for almost a year. In that time, he has learned to play the game, quickly building skills that take others years of practice to develop, says his coach, Wang Libo, who maintains that the pint-sized player has Olympic potential.
The sports school, known for producing ping-pong world champions, attracts children from all corners of China to its campus in the watermelon-growing fields of the Daxing district outside Beijing. Some of its famous alumni include Zhang Yining, gold medalist in women’s singles and doubles at the Athens 2004 Olympics, and Guo Yan, gold medalist in women’s doubles in Athens and at the 2007 Slovenia Open.
About 1,200 students attend the sports school but only 50 of them make it into the ping-pong program. The children in this exclusive team range in age from five to 12. The school is one of 18 sports schools in Beijing, and the only one with a ping-pong program.
Wang Libo, dean of the ping-pong training department, is a former Olympian who participated in the speed-walking competition at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. He oversees the school’s ping-pong program and also serves as manager of the Chinese national ping-pong team. His office decor, including photos of high-ranking Beijing officials and the champions he has trained, testifies to his long-standing commitment to promoting the sport.
Originally referred to as table tennis, ping-pong originated in England at the end of the 1800s, and gained international attention by the 1920s. Japan was the first Asian country to adopt the sport. By the late 1950s, China was adopting the fad. Ping-pong became a Chinese passion that has remained part of the national identity. Children played ping-pong anywhere they could find a solid surface to use as a table. According to Jerome Charnyn, author of Sizzling Chops and Devilish Spins: Ping Pong and the Art of Staying Alive, there are 10 million registered players in China, and an estimated 100 million amateurs.
About half the children in the ping-pong program are expected to join the Chinese national team after graduation. Wang estimates that three out of the 50 students will probably make it to a future Olympic competition. Children with disabilities are also welcomed at the school, where the coaches train them to participate in the Paralympics. Despite having to practice for six hours every day, Wang says academic subjects remain the school’s top priority.
Students live on campus year-round. Some travel long distances to get to Beijing and only get to see their family a few times a year. Wang says the children are very independent and that the distance does not seem to affect most of them. Liu Xinyu is eight years old and has been living at the school for two years. She wants to grow up to be a ping-pong champion. She only sees her parents twice a year because they live in Heilongjiang province located in China’s far northeastern corner near the Russian border.
“I don’t miss my parents because there are so many other children around me and I feel really happy living here,” she says.
During the summer, the children study English, Japanese and astronomy, instead of attending regular classes. Wang says the kids do not play with toys. For entertainment they practice Chinese calligraphy or play games such as chess, cards and basketball.
Even with the hefty investment the yuan equivalent of $2,400 in annual tuition made by the families who bet on their children’s athletics skills, Wang says the school tries not to pressure the kids to succeed. Given their student's tender years, the coaches try to make the sport fun. When children grow older and the championships become more competitive, some athletes suffer depression and stress when outcomes are not as expected, he adds.
Little Chen Xubin's parents moved to Beijing to be close to him. They visit him at the school every two weeks. "Sometimes I miss them, and sometimes I don’t,” Chen says. After winning another match, he smiles and bows politely to his opponent. His stature seems to contrast with his precise etiquette. But despite his serious demeanor, he still sounds like a typical seven-year old. “I hope to be a world champion when I grow up," he says, "but after practice I hope I can get to jump rope.”