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Little celebration as China wins table tennis gold

By Stephen Wade

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 1:26 p.m. MDT

Zhang Jike of China, serves the ball against Dimitrij Ovtcharov of Germany, during the men's table tennis singles competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, in London.

Sergei Grits, Associated Press

LONDON — China has won two gold medals in two days in Olympic table tennis — both in all-China finals. In other sports, or from other nations, that would be cause for chest-bumping, high-fiving raucous celebrations. At least a few smiles.

There was almost none of that Thursday from Zhang Jike, who defeated teammate Wang Hao in the men's singles final. Zhang's lone hint of happiness celebrating his first Olympic gold medal barely lasted as long as a pingpong rally.

After the winning point, to take the match 4-1, Zhang leapt over a yard-high barrier surrounding the playing area — looking more like an Olympic hurdler — then raced to the podium, knelt and kissed the gold-medal platform.

"It was spontaneous," he said. "If you plan everything, you can't do it well."

That was the beginning and end of any public show of joy or surprise.

Minutes later on the medal podium, his eyes glazed over and he seemed far away. Taking questions from Chinese and non-Chinese reporters, he often looked distracted, burying his chin in his shoulder as he looked down.

"We just finished a very exciting competition, and so my whole body is still not there," Zhang said. "I may appear a little down, but that's normal."

Trying to explain the lack of exuberance, several Chinese reporters suggested pingpong is seen as a "total team game" in China, where it's the national pastime for 1.3 billion people.

Chinese players are expected to win — they have 22 of 26 gold medals since the game entered the 1988 Olympics — and beating a friend and teammate calls for restraint and respect.

It was very similar in Wednesday women's final when Li Xiaoxia defeated teammate Ding Ning.

It was Wang's third Olympic final — and third losing final. He also lost to Zhang a year ago in the finals of the world championships. He said he will focus on the upcoming team competition, and a little pep talk that men's coach Liu Guoliang gave them both before the big match.

"He was talking to both of us and encouraging us to play well. Lose or win, we must be positive for the team competition," Wang said. "To be honest, I feel more disappointment for my fans than myself. I will still do my best. I hope my fans can be strong along with me."

The most outwardly happy guy was bronze medalist Dimitrij Octcharov of Germany, who defeated Chuang Chih-Yuan of Taiwan to pick up his first medal.

"To win a single Olympic medal is the biggest thing for any sportsman, particularly a table tennis player," he said.

The governing body of table tennis has tried tinkering with rules to give others a chance. This time, only two singles players are allowed from a nation, down from three in Beijing. That guarantees someone other than China at least wins a bronze.

It also puts crushing pressure on the Chinese to deliver. In the world championships, China enters seven or eight players in singles. There is no such no cushion with only two in the Olympics.

China men's coach Liu Guoliang, a double gold medalist in 1996, would like to see a bit more competition.

"I'd be happy to see the overall standard improve," Liu said. "But of course, I want Chinese players to stay on top."

That seems inevitable. China's sports schools, in the style of the Soviet Union, keep producing great athletes. They're identified early and honed through thousands of hours of practice by the time they're teenagers. And most careers are planned by sports officials.

Liu, who was on the bench to coach Zhang and Wang in the other matches, watched from the stands in the sold-out 6,000-seat venue — huge by table-tennis standards.

"One is like an elder son, and the other is like a younger son," Liu said.

Follow Stephen Wade at http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP.

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