SINGAPORE (Reuters) - After nearly 50 years without a medal, Singapore is pinning its Olympic dreams on a China-born table tennis player who says she loves playing the piano more than her sport.
Li Jia Wei, 26, the captain of a team ranked eighth in the world by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), hopes to win a medal in Beijing in August with a squad of 10, eight of whom were born in China.
In a well-lit sports hall full of bright blue playing tables, Li’s 1.73-metre, willowy frame stiffens and her pixie-like face darkens when she whips the ball over the net.
Although each serve is filled with power and spin, Li admits she does not play the game with passion.
“I don’t like the game. I just did it when I was younger to condition my body,” she said. “Now it is my career and I have to face it.”
She is, however, committed to giving her best in Beijing. “If I didn’t think getting a medal was possible there’s no use going to play,” she said. “Getting a gold medal will be very, very difficult because of the China team.”
Half of the world’s top 10 female players are from China but there would be no torn loyalties during the Games for those on the Singapore team, said Beijing-born Li.
“I go back to China often to compete. In terms of representing Singapore, I came here when I was 13 or 14 and every step of my development was given to me by Singapore. So when I take part in competitions I will try my best,” she said.
Singapore, a Southeast Asian city of 4.6 million people, has never won a gold medal at the Games and the closest it got was a silver for men’s weightlifting in 1960.
By contrast, China’s top table tennis player Zhang Yining, who is ranked the number one female player in the world, is a hot favorite for a gold medal in Beijing. She won two gold medals in Athens for the singles and doubles events four years ago.
Li almost had a glory finish in Athens but she lost the bronze medal to South Korean Kim Kyung-ah.
Despite living in Singapore for 13 years, Li speaks little English and prefers to converse in her native Mandarin. Talent scouted in Beijing when she was 14 by Singaporean officials, Li was whisked away to the city-state for training, returning to China only once a year to see her parents.
Li, now a Singapore citizen, is one of many foreign-born athletes groomed under Singapore’s Foreign Sports Talent Scheme.
Under the scheme, children from overseas are brought into Singapore under contracts to train. Once they are good enough, they trade in their home-country citizenship to play for the city-state in international competitions.
“We try to look for young, talented players below the age of 16 so that we have time to groom them technically and help them assimilate to the society,” said Jackie Tay, director of the Singapore Table Tennis Association.
Critics say the scheme cuts out local talent in sports and is a shortcut to obtaining medals.
Singapore is not alone in this tactic, with other countries such as the Netherlands also fielding a highly ranked China-born table tennis player.
“The Singapore Sports Council encourages the national sports associations to think long-term, focus on local youth development and to see the recruitment of foreign talent as a short-term initiative to raise the standards in Singapore,” said Wayde Clews of the Singapore Sports Council.
Li may not be the best ambassador for encouraging youngsters. After 20 years of playing table tennis, she looks bored when talking about the sport, but mention shopping or playing the piano and her face brightens instantly.
“I like playing Fur Elise,” she said, referring to the piano solo by Beethoven, adding that she was taking piano lessons in Singapore.
Recognizing that sports is a career not kind to age, Li said that she might stop playing professionally in a few years.
“If there was an Olympics every year I may still play, but in four years I will be old and I have more important things to do with my life.”
Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Clare Fallon