Coronavirus pandemic: Olympics postponement

Time not on Feng's side but 33-year-old will plough on

An upset Feng Tianwei during her last-16 singles loss at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. She is bidding to become the oldest female table tennis Olympic medallist. ST FILE PHOTO
An upset Feng Tianwei during her last-16 singles loss at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. She is bidding to become the oldest female table tennis Olympic medallist. ST FILE PHOTO

When Feng Tianwei led Singapore to a table tennis women's team silver at the 2008 Beijing Games, she helped end the Republic's 48-year wait for a second Olympic medal.

She will need to make history again to stand on the podium at the Tokyo Games, which have pushed back to next year.

Since table tennis made its debut at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, only six female paddlers over the age of 30 have won a medal, with Germany's Shan Xiaona the oldest at 33 when she won a team silver at Rio de Janeiro 2016.

Time is not on Feng's side as she turns 34 in August, even though she has recent victories against the likes of China's world No. 1 Chen Meng and fellow world No. 9 Kasumi Ishikawa of Japan.

While the Singapore women's team have already qualified for the 2020 Games, a potential extra 12 months following the delay will mean that Feng has to continue hustling for world ranking points to attain better seedings in the women's singles and team events.

Feng, who has been coping with a chronic wrist problem, told The Straits Times: "The decision to postpone the Olympics is a fair one for everyone.

"I just hope that I can do what is required of me to be at my best when the Olympics are eventually held, and that is to take good care of my body, maintain my technical and fitness levels to face the different challenges that are to come."

She fell to 13th in the world rankings last July but worked her way back into the top 10.

Maintaining her status as one of the world's best paddlers for another year will be challenging.

Form and fitness aside, there are also financial considerations for Singapore's most bemedalled Olympian, who also has singles and team bronzes at London 2012.

After cutting ties with the Singapore Table Tennis Association in 2016, she no longer receives an allowance from the association.

 
 

She receives funding via Sport Singapore's Spex Scholarship, but there is pressure to play more - 20 to 30 events a year - and do well to justify the financial support.

The International Table Tennis Federation's suspension of its World Tour events has hurt Feng, although next year's introduction of the US$13 million (S$18.8 million) World Table Tennis series will offer the opportunity to earn more prize money.

The funds are needed to sustain her five-man team comprising two coaches, two sparring partners and a manager, as well as her overseas training programme.

Her expenses can easily run into a six-figure sum a year. For instance, she is currently training in Japan and was based in Europe before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.

Feng is determined to fine-tune her plans for what appears to be her final Olympic medal push.

A podium finish would make her the sport's oldest female Olympic medallist. Chinese Taipei's Chen Jing (31 in 2000), South Korean Kim Kyung-ah (31 in 2008), former teammates Wang Yuegu (32 in 2012) and Li Jiawei (30), and Germany's Han Ying (32 in 2016) are the other five women paddlers who won a medal after 30.

 
 

Feng said: "At this point, if I want to continue playing and strive to do well at the rescheduled Olympics, I will need to find more sponsors to maintain the team I have built so that I can continue to improve and be ready for battle.

"I'm always thankful for the Spex Scholarship and the good relationship with Singapore Sport Institute over the years, and I hope to continue to have their support in this long and tough journey."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2020, with the headline 'Time not on Feng's side but 33-year-old will plough on'. Print Edition | Subscribe