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Players learn romance is no-no on squad
( 2004-01-07 08:51) (China Daily)

It appears the only "doubles'' matches permitted by China's national table tennis team are those that take place in competition.

On January 2 head coach Cai Zhenhua announced that four players ?Bai Yang, Li Nan and Fan Ying from the women's squad, and Hou Yingchao from the men's contingent ?have been dropped from the 58-member national team for engaging in romantic relations with other players.

Ma Lin [Filephoto/Xinhua]

In a surprise move, Cai also fined himself 10,000 yuan (US$1,080).

In handing down the harshest penalties in the team's history, Cai, who also serves as vice-director of the China Table Tennis and Badminton Administrative Centre, said the forced splitting of three couples was "in the interests of the whole national team and the sport's development in China.''

"In removing the four players, we are adopting the approach of cutting off the limb to save the tree,'' said Cai.

"This year will be a tough one for us. We are facing difficult challenges in seeking gold medals at the Athens Olympics, so we should start the year off properly.''

The announcement, which came the day before the team departed for a secluded training camp, left most of the other paddlers stunned and disappointed.

"Some veteran players have made the same mistake; why are just the four young players being dismissed?'' said one team member, referring to the men's singles world No 1 Ma Lin and world No 3 Wang Hao, who are reportedly involved with Bai Yang and Fan Ying respectively.

Wang Hao [Filephoto/Xinhua]

But Cai was unmoved.

"We kept Ma Lin and Wang Hao because the other four were in poor match form,'' he said. "It can be understood that young players date each other, but the national table tennis team is special, and we must shoulder the responsibilities to win gold for our country at the Olympics.

"It would be unacceptable for our preparations to be adversely affected by romantic problems. We had to take special measures because these are special circumstances.''

At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, China won all four gold medals in table tennis.

Lu Yuansheng, head coach of the women's squad, agreed with the decision and said it should serve as a warning to other players.

"Ma and Wang are top players; we dismissed the other four in a bid to warn all the others,'' he said.

A top official from the China National Table Tennis Association also expressed support for the decision and urged the rest of the team to concentrate their energies on preparing for Athens.

"Dating is not against the law or regulations, but as professional players they have a few short years to train and compete. That time should not be spent on dating,'' Li Yuhuan told AP. "We hope all our young players will treasure this time in their career.''

Wang Zhongquan, father of Wang Hao, was disappointed upon hearing the news.

"I know Wang Hao and Fan Ying have a good relationship, but I don't think they are in love,'' he said. "It's a bit too far to describe them as lovers.''

Meanwhile, the punishment has sparked heated debate among Chinese fans.

According to a survey on sina.com.cn, the nation's largest website, over 40 per cent of respondents are in favour of the decision, with 30 per cent "doubtful'' and 20 per cent strongly opposed.

"The punishment is really good for the maturation of young players, because they are the future hope for China,'' said Lu Ya'nan, a student at Zhejiang University.

But respondent Zhu Hui took the opposite view, saying: "Competition and training don't take up 24 hours. It's natural and human for young players to date. Cai Zhenhua has a wife. Does this mean he should leave her until after the Olympics?''

In an ironic twist, the dismissal of the four players came in the same week that Kim Clijsters, the world's No 2-ranked female tennis player, announced her engagement to Lleyton Hewitt, the former world No 1-ranked player on the men's tour.

Today Clijsters, sporting her glittering new engagement ring, will square off against Hewitt in the mixed doubles competition at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia.

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