Olympics: Mending paddlers' deep internal divide

From left: Singapore's Wang Yuegu, Feng Tianwei and Li Jiawei celebrating after winning silver in the team event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
From left: Singapore's Wang Yuegu, Feng Tianwei and Li Jiawei celebrating after winning silver in the team event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.ST FILE PHOTO

The Singapore National Olympic Council gives a behind-the-scenes look at how the country ended a 48-year wait for a second Olympic medal with Project 0812: The Inside Story Of Singapore's Journey To Olympic Glory. Here is the fourth excerpt from the book, authored by former Straits Times journalist Peh Shing Huei.

In March 2008, a month when the conflict reached its apex, Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) asked the Project 0812 committee to take over the management of the imploding team.

"I felt that it was useful to bring SNOC in to manage the dispute," said STTA president Choo Wee Khiang. "SNOC is an authority that is impartial. There is trust between STTA and SNOC and we enjoyed a high level of confidence in each other."

On March 8, 2008, Project 0812's working committee chairman Tan Eng Liang intervened personally, holding a meeting with all the players and coaches in the Toa Payoh headquarters of STTA.

"That was the beginning of a very serious, thorough involvement of the working committee into table tennis," said Tan.

The scene at the meeting shocked the Project 0812 representatives. "It was very clear immediately when the meeting started that (Li) Jiawei was the chief spokesperson of all the women players and they wanted (Wang) Yuegu out," he said, adding that Li used some "very strong words" on Wang.

Instead of a team made up of Li, Wang and Feng (Tianwei), the Li faction wanted to replace Wang with Sun Beibei.

But Project 0812 rejected the proposal out of hand.

SNOC assistant secretary-general Edmund Lim said: "Sun was ranked world No. 18 then. Wang was No. 8. If we replaced a No. 8 with a No. 18, our team's world ranking would definitely drop. The coach and the manager felt that even without Wang, we could still do well at the Olympics. But Dr Tan felt that it was impossible."

Tan went to the nub of the problem. He told the players that the team's focus ought to be on the Beijing Olympics team event, and not the singles. Singapore had a better chance at a team event medal, he added, and everyone had to work together for that goal.

"It wasn't as if they didn't know that the team was the most likely to yield a medal," said team manager Antony Lee. "But some of them were also eyeing an individual medal in the singles, hence the rivalry. Jiawei was certainly eyeing a medal in the singles."

To reinforce the point, Tan wielded a big stick. He told the women that regardless of rankings, SNOC would decide on who will represent Singapore at the Olympics, based on an internal selection trial. "I reminded them that SNOC would be the one to decide on the players to be at the Olympics," recalled Tan.

"So, it wasn't up to the players and coaches to select and nominate the team. If they wanted to gang up and think that they could go without Yuegu, we would consider not sending the team to represent Singapore at the Olympic Games. That was the message."

Tan added, according to Lee, that he would bear the consequences. "The ultimatum woke them up," said Lee.

They were told, in no uncertain terms, that Wang had to be reintegrated. To ensure that the order was obeyed, Tan announced that Jimmy Kwan, a former table tennis umpire and a long-time team manager of Singapore's national bowling squad, would be embedded with the team until the Games.

"To put it bluntly, Kwan was a spy for us," said Tan with a laugh.

But the factional struggle would get worse in March before it got better, with Kwan having a front-row seat to the horror show. Three days after the meeting, the team left for the Kuwait Open. Wang remained completely ostracised.

Kwan, who was on his first trip with the team, said: "The minute the Singapore players finished their matches, the coach and everybody just went off. Wang was still playing but they didn't bother at all. All of them just walked off. Nobody was left. I was shocked."

•The P0812 book is available at Kinokuniya and www.selectbooks.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2018, with the headline 'Mending paddlers' deep internal divide'. Print Edition | Subscribe