BEIJING • Liu Guoliang has been lovingly dubbed "the fatty who doesn't know how to play table tennis", but he is still the man most trusted to return China to ping-pong prominence at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
When the 42-year-old stepped down as head coach of China in June last year, it left the once-formidable squad facing huge pressure from rivals like Germany, Japan and South Korea and fuelled doubts that it would be a vaunted force in Tokyo.
With the team struggling on the global stage, Liu's return to the pressure cooker appeared imminent.
He went back to work for the Chinese Table Tennis Association two months ago, and on Dec 1 in Beijing, he was announced as its new chairman, charged with recapturing former glory.
"Now there are two priorities," said Liu. "The first is to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The second is to build a better future for the sport.
"The association will design strategies to make Chinese table tennis more professional, international and market-oriented."
He has been a beloved household name since he became the first Chinese player to win the career grand slam by taking titles at the World Championships, World Cup and Olympic Games.
After retirement, he kept surprising the country in his capacity as national team coach, nurturing a consistent flow of new Olympic gold medallists and world champions including Zhang Jike, who became just the fourth male player to achieve a career grand slam.
Liu has won more hearts because of his frequent public interactions with fans on social media.
He acquired his "Fatty" nickname after the men's final at the 2016 Rio Olympics when a fan who clearly was not familiar with the sport asked online: "Who is that fatty sitting behind Team China? He knows nothing about table tennis."
It only made China love him more.
"We are facing a very real and severe crisis, but the national table tennis team have never been afraid of challenges," Liu added.
"Take 18-year-old Japanese player Mima Ito as an example. She won 10 of the 13 games she played against Chinese players in recent months. Her win rate of 77 per cent is astonishing as Japanese players formerly had only about a 20 per cent chance of beating us.
"Given the age of our top foreign rivals, we might face greater challenges in the Olympics. The Japanese team have been making efforts for decades and they dream of winning gold in Tokyo. The gap is closing.
"However, Team China have overcome so many crises in the past. Even if there are competitive rivals and difficulties at the Tokyo Games, we will still pull teeth from the tiger's mouth."
While China boast multiple Olympic and world champions in Ma Long and Ding Ning, a new generation is out to prove their mettle on the international stage, including men's world No. 1 Fan Zhendong, 21, and women's world No. 1 Zhu Yuling, 23.
To spur his team's development, Liu announced two reforms.
"First, we will have a new, two-way choice system for coaches and players based on the characters and wills of the two sides to optimise the work," he said.
"Also, we will establish an athlete committee, which is a bold but promising decision that highlights the athlete-oriented principle of preparing for the Olympics."
World champion Ma was quick to hail the new direction, posting on Weibo: "From coach Liu to chairman Liu, our goal has remained the same - fighting for the national flag on the front of our chest! Go for the Tokyo Olympics!"
ASIA NEWS NETWORK/CHINA DAILY