Thu, 13 Aug 2020

Liu Guoliang waves to spectators during the awards ceremony at the ITTF World Tour Platinum China Open in Shenzhen, China on June 2, 2019. (Xinhua/Wang Dongzhen)

Chinese table tennis chief Liu Guoliang has been tasked with promoting the sport on a global level, as World Table Tennis (WTT) names the former Olympic champion as its new head.

By sportswriters Su Bin and Cao Jianjie

BEIJING, June 29 (Xinhua) -- Following a storied career as both an athlete and a coach, Liu Guoliang already had a blueprint for table tennis' development in mind when he embraced his new role as World Table Tennis (WTT) Council Chairman.

Liu, the current Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) president, was appointed to the council chairmanship post on Monday.

"This is a considerable challenge, but a good platform and chance as well," China's table tennis legend told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES AHEAD

Launched last year, the World Table Tennis (WTT) will manage all commercial and event business of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) from 2021, with its newly-introduced event structure featuring Grand Smashes and the WTT Series.

"This is an excellent platform and the boldest innovation by the ITTF in many years, and is aimed at developing the sport and promoting its popularity worldwide. This is a brilliant chance and a huge challenge as well," Liu commented.

Liu's influence and experience in the sport was a key factor in the WTT Board's considerations as they worked to fill the position.

Chinese head coach Liu Guoliang (L) and Ma Long cheer their teammates on during the men's team gold medal match against Japan at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games on August 17, 2016. (Xinhua/Yin Bogu)

"We want someone who has a lot of experience in our sport and understands a little bit about the modern way of trying to do sports events. When we looked around, we could see that probably the best person is Liu Guoliang," said ITTF chief executive officer Steve Dainton.

Liu had discussions with ITTF President Thomas Weikert and Dainton before accepting the position, exchanging ideas about developing table tennis.

"ITTF has shown boldness in carrying out innovation and providing the best platform for players around the world. This is an opportunity for the sport. Everyone is looking forward to setting up an excellent platform," Liu noted.

"WTT's future is intertwined with the future development of the sport. Table tennis featured in the Olympic Games, World Championships and World Cups in the past, but there are no professional competitions apart from the three majors. WTT's four Grand Smashes starting next year will offer a better platform for players around the world. More high-caliber paddlers can earn the chance to shine and achieve at the highest level, also giving the best matches to fans to enjoy."

Liu called on all stakeholders in the "table tennis community" to work together for developing the sport and promoting it around the globe.

"Hopefully, every country and region, member association and star player can motivate themselves so that more people can take up table tennis, learn something from it and give it a go," he declared.

MENTALITY CHANGES AND CHALLENGES

"Life is always a process of self-challenges," Liu said of his own many role changes in life, from an athlete to a coach, then to president of China's table tennis governing body and now in the sport's global organization.

As a player, Liu Guoliang was only the second man to achieve a career grand slam of winning gold at the Olympic Games, World Cup and World Championships. (Xinhua)

"I dreamed of achieving the Grand Slam when I was an athlete. Then I became the head coach, chief coach, and president (of the Chinese Table Tennis Association), continually changing my position."

"Whenever I change it, I need to change my mentality. This is the biggest one. Coming onto the stage of WTT, apart from results, I have to express the uniqueness of Chinese table tennis culture and tell the Chinese story to the world table tennis community," he said.

Growing up as an athlete, Liu is keenly aware of the players' demands, and WTT is projected to place players and fans at its core of all business.

"They need an excellent platform to showcase their skills, thus making the platform the most important thing. We will have four more Grand Smashes and WTT Series events, which will offer more opportunities to athletes," Liu pointed out.

International table tennis competitions are currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Liu, whose task of forging a future for table tennis comes at an unprecedented period in history, is eager to turn lemons into lemonade.

"It's a big crisis for all sports. But through crisis can arise opportunity. It is crucial to resume and reconstruct table tennis. This challenging period calls on everyone's effort and togetherness to improve the sport's professionalization, commercialization, and internationalization through WTT," he said.

"It is a learning process. On such a world stage as WTT, we need to put aside minor differences to seek common ground and make the most of the advantages of all parties. This is the biggest challenge and direction that we are marching toward."

CHINA & WORLD TABLE TENNIS REAP MUTUAL REWARD

Serving as chief of two associations, Liu says his dual role makes him uniquely positioned to connect China's table tennis with the sport worldwide.

"It's mutually beneficial. World table tennis needs China, and China also needs the world. It's about mutual assistance and mutual promotion," he said. "China has the highest number of champions, star athletes and fans, but we need an international stage and a better platform to showcase ourselves and let Chinese table tennis culture heard around the world."

People play table tennis at the Gujiang resettlement area in Dahua Yao Autonomous County, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on May 15, 2020. (Xinhua/Cao Yiming)

Liu noted the growing trend of table tennis increasing in popularity, such as in China and Japan after the 2016 Olympic Games. This is especially true among young age groups.

"Fans and athletes are like water and fish. Star players need admiration and encouragement from fans and will grow from it. We hope more sports stars can stand out from the crowd and create positive energy in society."

"If we have more stars, people will be more interested in the game, and more fans will come out. Players can see their self-worth on this platform, and outstanding athletes can work hard on the court to attract more fans," Liu said.

"Athletes are always the priority. We need to consider how to utilize the platform to produce more champions, stars and excellent matches, and close contact between players and fans."

"This will be a challenge beyond just gold medal contention. It's also an opportunity and platform to elevate this sport to the peak," he concluded. ■

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