Table Tennis: A televised apology and seven days in the fields... the price of sporting failure in China

The wild man of Chinese table tennis is likely to clean up his act after being punished for kicking a chair. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online

Public apologies have become a commonplace for erring sporting figures. Mike Tyson appeared on US television in 1997 to excuse himself for chewing Evander Holyfield's ear in the ring, claiming he had only done "what many athletes have done". In 2003 another legendary US sportsman recast himself as a penitent figure in the public eye when basketballer Kobe Bryant, of the Los Angeles Lakers, pleaded his case after allegations of sexual assault.

Both can be grateful they were not Chinese in the wake of yesterday's reports that the Olympic table tennis doubles champion, Chen Qi, has made a televised public apology after losing his rag following a defeat earlier this year and will now spend seven days' hard labour in the fields.

Chen's actions were way down the scale in comparison to the likes of Tyson and Bryant - after losing to compatriot Wang Ha in the Asia Cup final held in Japan on 5 March, his crime was to fling the ball to the ground and kick a chair in the air.

Chair-kicking is hardly new in the sporting world - Canada's former Olympic 200m breast-stroke champion Victor Davis produced a memorably petulant example under the impassive gaze of the Queen after a disqualification at the 1982 Commonwealth Games. But while Davis earned nothing more than a reputation as being a bit of a firebrand for his moment of excess, Chen has paid a heavier price.

The gold medallist from Athens has endured a series of punishments for his regrettable misdemeanour including heavy fines, censure from his team-mates, a lengthy ban and, most recently, a week's exile to the countryside for "re-education".

The Beijing Times reports that Chen will spend seven days in the countryside near Pan Tao, a village in the northern province of Hebei, where his duties will involve "levelling dirt, weeding and plucking cucumbers". Only then will Chen be allowed to rejoin his colleagues in the Jaingsu team before the domestic league season starts.

That's the way they do things in New China, where table tennis - a sport they have dominated for years - is viewed with the same fervour as football in England and sportsmen and women are expected to meet the highest standards of personal behaviour.

In March, Chen's colleague Qiu Yike was banned for a year from the national team after he returned late from a night of drinking with friends during February's national trials for the world championships.

Even that legendary disciplinarian Alf Ramsey offered his England players a second chance when several of them went out drinking before a match abroad in the run-up to the 1966 World Cup finals, when leaving their passports on their hotel beds for their return served as an adequate warning that such behaviour would not be tolerated in future.

If the cost of getting it wrong is heavy in China, the benefits of getting it right can be estimable. When Wang Nan won the women's singles title at the 2000 Olympics by beating Li Ju, the compatriot with whom she had already won the doubles gold medal, she was rewarded by being appointed delegate from Liaoning Province to the Chinese Party Congress. She also appeared in adverts for sanitary towels.

Chen's punishment occurs as China passes the 40th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) - a period when Mao Zedong's "re-education" campaigns forcibly sent millions of city-dwelling youth, intellectuals and workers into the country to "learn from the peasants". Sending players into "poor regions" was an idea the team had raised before, national team coach Liu Guoliang told the Beijing Times, adding: "If the education proves effective, we'll consider sending the whole team."

Perhaps that is a prospect to thrill Chen's colleagues. Or perhaps they will be hoping that when the horny-handed son of the soil returns he still appears unable to resist taking out his frustrations upon the nearest furniture.