Commentary

Feng Tianwei's exclusion: Sudden move raises questions about table tennis body itself

The Singapore Table Tennis Association's (STTA) announcement last night that Feng Tianwei "does not fit" in its current plans for rejuvenation was as baffling as it was sudden.

Essentially, the STTA is dropping the world's No. 6 women's player - a three-time Olympic medallist at that - from the national set-up.

The shock move came a day after the association sacked world No. 58 Li Hu, Singapore's second-highest ranked male player, for breaking house rules, including bringing his girlfriend to stay at the STTA hostel overnight.

Feng, 30, is a stalwart who has been at the heart of Singapore table tennis' glories.

The manner in which she was dismissed - like an executioner's axe swiftly severing ties - left the sharpest impression.

One wonders why the STTA sees fit to deploy three-time Olympian Gao Ning as a mentor and offer him a role as a player-coach, but sees no such value in a far more successful Feng.

 
 
 
 

In one fell swoop - four succinct sentences tucked in the middle of an otherwise lengthy statement - the STTA made it clear that it has no intention of letting Singapore's most successful athlete play any further role.

No press conference was called by the STTA, at which Feng could also have been present to talk about her departure from the squad.

It is believed that she met the association's leadership only in the late afternoon yesterday - which would mean Feng learnt of her fate after many in the fraternity had already got wind of it.

The Straits Times understands that there had been hints of the decision a day before.

Surely, there are better ways of parting with an athlete who has consistently delivered the sport's greatest sporting feats - among them beating China to win a historic world team title in 2010.

The association cited its ambition for "youth development" and a need to be "future ready" in its push for Tokyo 2020 as reasons to refresh the team - all of which are commendable, more so after a disappointing outing at the Rio Olympics.

Having returned empty-handed for the first time in three Games, a post-mortem for Singapore's best-performing sport was definitely warranted.

But if the goal is to make a swift return to the Olympic podium, then dropping one's best and most experienced player seems a strange move.

Feng's age - she will be 34 come 2020 - seems to have been a major factor in the STTA's decision. For someone who has struggled of late with form and chronic injuries, the STTA's scepticism is not completely unfounded.

Still, for the leadership to make such a drastic move is shocking, especially given its timing.

It is no secret that tensions have been running high within the association, after a public fallout between the women's team and former national head coach Jing Junhong at the end of last year.

Jing was later redeployed to become chief coach of youth development instead. Still, as the wife of STTA technical director and former national paddler Loy Soo Han, her link to one of the association's decision-makers inevitably raises concerns about a conflict of interest.

Jing, 48, ironically, is one of a few who can vouch that a significant achievement is not out of the question for older athletes late into their careers.

She herself was 32 when she finished fourth at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. That breakthrough helped pave the way for Singapore's subsequent table tennis achievements.

No one questioned Jing's age, passion or "fit" then.

Even if Feng's career as a player is on the wane, surely her unrivalled experience is something that cannot - and must not - be written off.

One wonders why the STTA sees fit to deploy three-time Olympian Gao Ning, 34, as a mentor and offer him a role as a player-coach, but sees no such value in a far more successful Feng.

While the STTA's intention to groom up-and-coming talent like Zhou Yihan, 22, and Lin Ye, 20, for the future is laudable, choosing to leave Feng completely out of the equation, and not tap her skills and experience in this critical and difficult transition, is bewildering.

If it is indeed personal squabbles and the souring of relations that have led to this breakdown, why should Singapore sport - and the marked progress it has made in recent years - be made to pay the biggest price?

What goes on within the walls of the STTA's Toa Payoh headquarters has always been something few are privy to, but the peculiarity of this episode suggests that a bigger malaise is brewing.

No national sport association can sack two of its best players in quick succession, have athletes fight their coach, and have some of its most notable local talents walk away from the sport, without questions being asked over how it is run.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Sudden move raises questions about table tennis body itself'. Print Edition | Subscribe