A mature Gao Ning ready for a third Olympics
Gao Ning heads into his third Olympics armed with experience
He is proud to be an Olympian, and of the fact that he will be competing in his third successive Games in Rio next month.
Few boast such a resume.
But Gao Ning knows he's not had the best of times at the Olympics.
On his debut in Beijing in 2008, the Singapore paddler started his men's singles campaign in the third round - after receiving a bye - and lost, knocked out by Croatia's Tan Ruiwu.
Four years later in London, he lasted one more round but missed out on the quarter-finals, although he did take one game off three-time Olympic silver medallist Wang Hao.
Now 33, the stakes are even higher for Gao Ning, especially after the Singapore men failed to qualify for the team event.
Speaking to The New Paper recently, the world No. 35 said: "My goal is first to reach the quarter-finals. This is dependent on my form and mentality.
"I don't feel the burden of expectations. All I'm thinking of is to go all out for every match."
It has not been the best of years for him though.
He has played just 12 matches this year after sustaining an ankle injury at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in February.
Out of the 12 contests, he won four and lost eight.
But, after 12 years of dedicated service to the national team, Gao Ning is made of sterner stuff, and even talks about a breakthrough at the Rio Games.
Without a pause, he said: "I have won many medals at Asian and Commonwealth levels in singles, doubles and team events.
"To win an Olympic medal would really make me feel complete."
Displaying defiance and resilience, Gao Ning partnered Yang Zhi and avenged a defeat by Japan's Jun Mizutani and Seiya Kishikawa in the 2009 World Table Tennis Championships men's doubles quarter-finals by beating the same pair five years later at the 2014 Asian Games men's doubles quarter-finals to take bronze.
He hopes to taste similar joy in Rio.
"I think it is best for me not to obsess over the Olympics as the world's biggest sporting meet. If I treat this as any other competition, I may be able to perform better," he said.
"People get too nervous because they know it is the biggest sporting event in the world, and they must deliver. As a result, they get tense and mess up.
"So I'm going to take it as just another competition and maybe I will do better.
"That's the difference in my mentality going into my third Olympics."
He doesn't rule out a fourth Olympics, and stated his intention to continue contributing to the local table tennis scene after his playing days are over.
The Hebei native has well and truly embraced his adopted home.
He resides in a HDB flat in Sembawang and commutes to training by MRT. He is also a chilli and coffee convert and speaks Singlish.
"If I have no major injuries, if I can keep up my form and technical standards, and if I can still qualify for the Olympics four years from now, I will play," he said.
"I have been here for 12 years and I am very grateful to Singapore for the many opportunities to fulfil my dreams and potential.
"I identify with Singaporeans' fighting spirit and, if it had been any country other than Singapore, I would never have taken up the citizenship.
"Without Singapore, I will not be who I am today, so whenever I represent Singapore in competitions, I always go all out as a Singaporean to fight for glory.
"After I retire from playing, I hope to become a coach and repay Singapore by coaching the next generation, and hopefully they can also make this country proud one day."
I’m also an athlete (rower), so I know just how difficult it is to get to the Olympics. It’s about time she reached this prestigious stage. I’m proud of her and I always knew she could reach it. She’s a very determined person... Our family members might even call her stubborn, but in a good way. She’s hungry, she always wants more, and this is what keeps her on the right line.
— Syahir Ezekiel Rafa’ee, brother of rower Saiyidah Aisyah (above), who will make her Olympic debut in Rio
ON TO RIO: (From left) Singapore table tennis men’s head coach Liu Jiayi, team manager Eddy Tay, Gao Ning, Chen Feng, STTA president Ellen Lee, Yu Mengyu, Zhou Yihan, Feng Tianwei, women’s team head coach Chen Zhibin and men’s team assistant head coach Hao Anlin. PHOTO: ST
- Name: Gao Ning
- Date of birth: oct 11,1982
- Previous Olympic experience: Beijing 2008 (third round), London 2012 (fourth round)
- Honour roll: (singles) India open 2007, Asian Cup 2007, Chile Open 2012, SEA Games 2015.
SINGAPORE TABLE TENNIS TEAM
Gao Ning (singles) Chen Feng (singles)
Feng Tianwei (singles,team)Yu Mengyu (singles,team) Zhou Yihan (team)
China-born paddlers spread around the globe
China's strength in table tennis is well known.
So tough is the competition for places in the national team that many talented paddlers move to other countries to pursue their dream of success in the sport.
At this year's Olympic Games, which will be hosted in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro from Aug 5 to 21, about a quarter of the players are born in China.
Discounting the 12 players who will represent China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, 27 out of the 140 entrants are born in China, but will represent Australia, Portugal, the United States, the Republic of Congo, hosts Brazil and Singapore, covering all the six continents represented at the Games.
Singapore's No. 1 male paddler Gao Ning, who made it to the provincial team in Hubei when he was 12, decided to make table tennis his career 10 years later.
"At the time, I wasn't young any more," said the 33-year-old, who will represent the Republic in his third Olympics in Rio.
"For a table tennis powerhouse like China, there are just too many talented players.
"I was 22 then and at a crossroads.
"I decided to come to Singapore firstly because I had good vibes about the country, having learnt about it from television programmes.
"Majority of the population is Chinese, so there's not much difference from China in that sense.
"Singapore would be able to provide me with a very good platform to prove myself, so at that time I didn't take too long to grab such a good opportunity."
Despite the number of players leaving the country, China still dominate men's and women's table tennis.
Melek Hu was born in China but turns out for her adopted country Turkey.
In an interview with Reuters, the 27-year-old said: "If I meet the China paddlers (in competition) I immediately think I'm unlucky, because it's very difficult to beat them.
"But the Chinese team represent the highest level of competition and I also want to see how wide the gap is between them and I.
"After all, you won't always get a chance to exchange blows with players who are that good."
China have won 24 out of the 28 gold medals since table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988.
The country is known for its cut-throat selection policy and military-style training drills; the women's world No. 1 Liu Shiwen did not even make this year's Olympics singles competition.
So dominant have Chinese paddlers been that the rules were changed in 2012, with the sport allowing only two players for each country for the singles events, to prevent one nation from winning all the medals at the Olympics, as China did in 2008 in Beijing.
- DAVID LEE