The unique scouting mission that delivered a star import

Li Jiawei, then only 15 years old, in her room at the Singapore Table Tennis Association dormitory in 1997. Her parents convinced the Chinese authorities to let her leave the country of her birth to move to Singapore.
Li Jiawei, then only 15 years old, in her room at the Singapore Table Tennis Association dormitory in 1997. Her parents convinced the Chinese authorities to let her leave the country of her birth to move to Singapore.ST FILE PHOTO

The Singapore National Olympic Council is providing 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 second excerpt from the book, authored by former Straits Times journalist Peh Shing Huei.

On the west bank of the picturesque Shichahai - a group of three imperial lakes that date back to the 12th century - sits a sports school that bears the name of the famous waters in Beijing.

The appropriation is fitting. The Beijing Shichahai Sports School has become as well known as the lakes, with alumni that include Jet Li and countless Olympic and world champions.

It has a proud slogan: "Cradle of world champions, base of Olympic talents". But as a Singaporean visitor to the school in 1995 would realise, the motto is no empty boast.

Thanks to superb relations with the Chinese table tennis officials, Mr Choo Wee Khiang was not only given a tour of the campus, but also told to have his pick of the school's young table tennis players.

Once chosen, if they were agreeable, they could leave for Singapore. It was a scouting mission unheard of in the ping pong world.

Mr Choo would leave with a girl who would turn out to be an Olympic talent and a world champion. Not that she was the STTA president's first choice.

He had quickly zoomed in initially on a skinny 14-year-old girl with boyish, short cropped hair.

"That's the one I want," he told his Chinese hosts.

They smiled, apologised politely and told him to choose again. "That one is off limits. She is our future world champion," they said.

The girl was Zhang Yining, who would go on to win the Olympic singles gold medal twice and remain world No. 1 for six years, from 2003 to 2009, with only a fortnight's disruption.

"Even at that age, they knew who was going to be the world champion," recalled Mr Choo. "I saw that killer instinct in her eyes, I saw how she played. She was a champion in the making."

Instead, the school offered another small 14-year old with curly hair. Her name was Li Jiawei.

Said Mr Choo: "She was so small and shy. I wasn't sure if she could cut it, especially going overseas on her own at that age."

But he decided to take a punt. She was keen too. Her parents managed to convince the Chinese authorities to release her.

In 1996, she moved to Singapore, a country with which she shares a special date - August 9, the nation's Independence Day and her birthday. It was an auspicious start.

Thus began Singapore table tennis' first steps into a proper and structured foreign sports talent scheme, and a firm step to take the country's ping pong ambitions beyond South-east Asia.

The sport had undergone a remarkable makeover since 1990. After decades of mediocrity, with the occasional triumphs in the region, it had catapulted clearly into a dominant position in South-east Asia. Much of it was because of one player - Jing Junhong.

Her marriage to Singapore national player Loy Soo Han in 1992 brought her out of China and into the Singapore set-up.

She was the country's first foreign sports talent and delivered results almost immediately.

In the 1995 SEA Games, the former China national team player won two gold medals.

"We lucked out," said former STTA vice-president Edwin Lee. "Junhong was a piece of gold that dropped onto our laps."

The resultant success gave the STTA, and by extension Singapore sports, the idea to tap on foreign talent.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2017, with the headline 'The unique scouting mission that delivered a star import'. Print Edition | Subscribe