Wang's life 'a living hell' when two stars collide

Li Jiawei (front) and Wang Yuegu on the way to winning their match to help Singapore to a 3-2 victory over South Korea in the semi-finals of the Beijing Olympics.
Li Jiawei (front) and Wang Yuegu on the way to winning their match to help Singapore to a 3-2 victory over South Korea in the semi-finals of the 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 third excerpt from the book, authored by former Straits Times journalist Peh Shing Huei.

She paused, took a deep breath and tried to stem the tide. It didn't work. The tears streamed down her cheeks. Her husband reached out and held her hand. She nodded, slowly pulled her hand out from his grasp and gave him a knowing pat to indicate she was okay to continue.

"For three months in 2008, I led a life that wasn't fit for humans," she said, choking, as faded memories were refreshed.

Seven years may have passed but the wounds remained raw for Wang Yuegu as she sat in the office of SNOC for an interview for this book in late 2015. "Nobody wanted to train with me and nobody wanted to be my sparring partner," she said. "At one point, they didn't even want to give me balls!"

Even as the Singapore women's national table tennis team was shaping up for an assault at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a vicious internecine battle was waging within the squad, threatening to unravel the dream of a medal.

The clash was a wildly asymmetrical tussle between Singapore's top player Li Jiawei and its second-ranked paddler Wang.

The entire team, including the coaches, stood with Li. Jimmy Kwan, an official tasked by SNOC to monitor the team before the Olympics, summed up the divide succinctly in an e-mail to the council in March 2008: "There are presently two factions in the team - Wang Yuegu vs the others."

The aim of the Li camp was to boot Wang out of the national set-up. "They were all ganging up to try to get rid of her," added Kwan in an interview for this book.

The roots of the problem started growing in 2006 and 2007, and centred on Wang's increasing threat to Li's pre-eminent position as Singapore's No. 1 table tennis player.

"Table tennis is both an individual and team sport," said team manager Antony Lee. "You compete as individuals and competitors in the singles competition one day, and you are team-mates in a team event on another day.

"There was rivalry between Yuegu and Jiawei as they fought to be the No. 1 player for Singapore."

Wang had disrupted a longstanding dynamic within the Singapore team. Li, as the top player, enjoyed an alpha female status.

"Li Jiawei was trying to impose herself as the 'big sister' and the others got to sort of kowtow to her," said Kwan. "It's the Chinese system. The senior one will act as the almighty and the others have to be subservient to her.

"Wang Yuegu wouldn't kowtow to her. When Yuegu played against Jiawei, she would go all out to beat her."

The degeneration in relations accelerated quickly after the SEA Games in December 2007.

"After the SEA Games, my life became a living hell," said Wang.

The problems started in training. Li would refuse to train with Wang and put pressure on the others to do likewise.

"Jiawei was the one who started most of the squabbles. She would train halfway, throw a tantrum and didn't want to train with Yuegu," said Lee. "She would just walk off and said Yuegu didn't spar properly."

Wang said that training times would be changed abruptly and she would frequently not be allocated sparring partners.

"They would hold meetings and said no one wanted to train with me," she said. "I asked why, what did I do, did I scold anyone? They couldn't give an answer."

Wang was allowed to train only with Tan Paey Fern, the sole Singapore-born player in the team.

"After a while, they didn't even let me train with Tan Paey Fern," said Wang. "I was sabotaged so badly... It was impossible."

Critically, head coach Liu Guodong took Li's side. "Liu Guodong was closer to Li Jiawei," observed Lee. "When the two players couldn't get along, he tended to take the side of Li Jiawei."

All the other players, including those in the men's team, also leaned in favour of Li.

Said Wang: "If your boss doesn't like this person, would you dare to be with that person? Don't you want your job?"

The others framed the issue differently. They saw the factional divide as evidence that Wang was the recalcitrant.

Said Liu: "She had problems with a lot of people, not just Li Jiawei. Ask Sun Beibei. Ask Feng Tianwei. Ask others. She had different ideas from us."

Sun declined to be interviewed for this book and STTA asked this writer not to bring up the squabble in the interview with Feng.

Li confirmed that it was an all versus one scenario in 2008.

"I wasn't the only one with issues with Wang Yuegu," she said. "Everyone had issues with her. If everyone had issues with me, then it was my problem. But if she was the only one with issues with me, maybe the problem was with her."

The fight became so petty that when the team travelled to chilly Xiamen in southern China for centralised training in February 2008, Liu obtained jackets for everyone except Wang.

• 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 December 27, 2017, with the headline 'Wang's life 'a living hell' when two stars collide'. Print Edition | Subscribe