2016: A YEAR OF DISRUPTION

STTA's axing of Feng stuns sports scene

Paddler Feng Tianwei competing in Doha earlier this month, after she was abruptly dropped from the national team.
Paddler Feng Tianwei competing in Doha earlier this month, after she was abruptly dropped from the national team.PHOTO: POWER SPORT IMAGES

The year 2016 in Singapore sports was a season of bountiful harvests, with tireless toil giving way to the sweetness of success that was most celebrated at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics.

So the unwelcome episode surrounding the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) and paddler Feng Tianwei that soon followed proved a rude shock.

The STTA's move to axe Feng from the national table tennis team stunned Singapore sports as well as several overseas rivals and observers.

Feng had been struggling with form and, as team captain, had just led the women's team to a barren run at the Rio Olympics - the first time in three Games they had returned empty-handed.

But Feng, ranked world No. 6 then and now, is still the best paddler by far within the Singapore stable, and had stated her intention to make a run for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

The 30-year-old was widely expected to continue leading the women's team for at least another Olympic cycle. Her sudden exclusion threw plans into disarray.

It was supposed to be a contemplative period for the sport, a time for studying how to regroup after a disappointing Olympics. Instead, the affairs of the STTA and the relationship between its management and athletes became a hot topic for public scrutiny.

The manner in which she was dismissed by the STTA, as well as the reason the sport's local governing body used to substantiate its decision, also proved baffling to many.

It was supposed to be a contemplative period for the sport, a time for studying how to regroup after a disappointing Olympics. Instead, the affairs of the STTA and the relationship between its management and athletes became a hot topic for public scrutiny.

Some disapproved of the way the STTA gave the boot to its most accomplished athlete - Feng is a triple Olympic medallist and member of the 2010 World Championship-winning team. The STTA said it severed ties with her as she "does not fit" into the association's plans for rejuvenation.

Others were confused because dropping the team's most valuable asset seemed counter-intuitive if the ambition was for Singapore table tennis to rediscover success on the world stage.

More discord followed when Feng's character was brought into question. She went from being recognised as the heroine of most of Singapore's table tennis success in recent years to seeing allegations of indiscipline and a lack of respect for authority appear in the media.

For Feng, who had hoped to get back into the momentum of competition and begin yet another four- year campaign as soon as possible after Rio, the development was an unwelcome interruption.

She intends to continue playing for Singapore, although she is no longer under the STTA's auspices when it comes to training and competition. She will now have to assemble a support system herself.

This includes getting her own coach and sparring partners, and also taking care of her own travelling and administrative logistics.

After Feng suffered an early exit at the International Table Tennis Federation's year-end season finale earlier this month, she admitted that being an independent player was a steep learning curve.

The STTA's ambition to "rejuvenate" and focus on "youth development" means it will now have to cope without Feng's leadership, experience and technical abilities, including at team events, because the association had also said that her inclusion would be "tricky".

But if the association's ambition to wean itself from its reliance on imported talent comes to pass, the move does open up a path for younger, local-born players to consolidate a place in the team, as the association seeks to groom the next generation of leading paddlers.

The exclusion of Feng from the national set-up by no means ends Singapore table tennis' successful run on the international stage.

After all, she continues to play for the nation - recently defeating world No. 1 and Olympic champion Ding Ning - and the women's team still comprises talented players.

But it was certainly a disruption Singapore sport could have done without.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2016, with the headline 'STTA's axing of Feng stuns sports scene'. Print Edition | Subscribe