Updated: August 1, 2016 2:18:37 pm
The world’s top ping pong player Ma Long has added a secret new performance-enhancing substance to his Rio 2016 training regime as he tries to overcome anxiety: booze.
China’s top table-tennis player has long dominated the world rankings, but failed to qualify for the singles competition at the London 2012 Olympics and finally won the world championship last year at his fifth attempt, raising questions about his mental resilience.
The lanky, muscular 27-year-old from the northeastern province of Liaoning lacks nothing when it comes to technical skills and is renowned for his scorching serve and deceptive spin.
But his struggles with nerves under pressure have driven China’s chief table tennis coach Liu Guoliang to focus instead on teaching his protege how to relax.
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“For Ma Long, two things are most important,” he told AFP. “One is that when the pressure gets very high, to make him go to a bar and drink some alcohol.”
The other was to distract him with chit-chat, he added. Moderation in drinking was key, Liu said, but the goal was to get the obsessed player to “relax a bit, because the demands he usually puts on himself are very strict and harsh”.
Ma has been selected for both the singles and team events in Rio, alongside compatriot and London gold medallist Zhang Jike, whom he will attempt to prevent becoming the first man to defend an Olympic table tennis singles title.
“I think Ma Long is the favourite to take first prize” at the Olympics, coach Liu said. “Now we just have to pay attention to his thought patterns and release his mental stress.”
Best in the game Some observers say he is the best in the history of the game, more powerful and faster than the legendary Swedish player Jan-Ove Waldner, raising the expectations on the star, for whom Olympic gold is the only major singles title he has not yet won.
“I have to throw off the burden and the pressure,” Ma told AFP. “That’s the only way I’ll get the title this time.”
Millions of Chinese eyes will be fixated on Rio and Ma, a celebrity in a country where table tennis is a source of national pride.
In the past, in a poor country that lacked top-class facilities, young Chinese who wanted to play sport had few options apart from ping pong.
For decades China has been the world’s top breeding ground for table tennis talent and has won 24 gold medals at the seven Olympics since the sport was added at Seoul 1988.
“Ping pong is really seen as China’s national ball sport,” said coach Liu. “The key is the passion and popularity of ping pong, it’s this point that other countries haven’t matched.”
In London 2012 the Asian giant sealed its second consecutive clean sweep of all four golds.
The top-ranked four male players in the world are all Chinese, and in Rio this summer Ma’s stiffest competitor will likely be his countryman and reigning Olympic champion Zhang.
China’s dominance is so pronounced that table tennis bosses worry it discourages other countries from competing, with one International Table Tennis Federation chief describing China’s hegemony as “devastating” for the sport.
But Ma does not see himself and Zhang as favourites for gold, pointing to players from Germany and Japan as potential rivals. The Olympics are a stage for upsets, he said. “I hope I can win the fight.”
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