Serving up the next generation

Walking into the Hong Kong Sports Institute and your first thought is that you are inside an airport terminal.

When you look around, however, and see posters of the city’s current crop of sports stars lining the hallway, you begin to realise there’s a whole other feat of engineering at work.

I pass members of the women’s national rugby team (at the time preparing to compete for a final qualifying spot in Rio). Physios press and pound the sporting elite, looked on by cabinets of medals and silverware.

The latest advances in science and technology, and millions of dollars, have been pumped into this factory. Regional, continental and international champions are, in turn, churned out with a distinctive “Made in Hong Kong” label.

I enter the table tennis hall, and am met with a dozen red-clad teenagers, rallying across rows of blue tables. Backhands and forehands are being played from the most audacious of angles, the occasional stray ball whizzing past my head.

I am here to meet the two men partly responsible for this production line of players, and arguably all these grand facilities as a whole.

Table tennis men’s doubles silver medallists Ko Lai Chak (L) and Li Ching (R), Athens 2004

On August 20th, 2004, Ko Lai Chak and Li Ching celebrated winning their Olympic table tennis semi-final, in the men’s doubles. Their gripping 11-5, 11-9, 5-11, 8-11, 11-6 victory over Russia in Athens meant the pair were assured at least a silver medal in the following day’s final.

“We were so excited after beating the Russians,” recalls Ko.

“It felt like a dream. We had a ticket to the final and we were going to get a medal. It was just a matter of what colour.”

Despite losing in the final to top seeds Chen Qi and Ma Lin of China, Ko and Li stood on the podium inside the Galatsi Hall, silver medals around their necks and with their names in the history books.

After Lee Lai-Shan’s golden exploits eight-years earlier in Atlanta, Ko and Li earned Hong Kong only its second ever Olympic medal.

Their arrival back in the city was met with plenty of pomp and ceremony. After landing at Chek Lap Kok to over 300 cheering fans, the pair were quickly ushered off to meet the Chief Executive. The Hong Kong Table Tennis Association (HKTTA) held an unprecedented two victory banquets at The Conrad, as Ko and Li became the toast of the town.

“We really appreciated the government and public’s support,” says Li.

“Even today, people come up to us in the street and ask for photos and autographs. It’s a reward for all our hard work.”

In the nineties, the Chinese-born pair met while trying to break into the country’s famed national team. Both were in their late teens. Struggling to make the cut, they made the switch across the Lo Wu border to compete for Hong Kong.

With men’s doubles offering the only opening in the side, their new coach suggested they partner up. “We had been living together and training in China for a long time,” Ko remembers. “But we have two different personalities. I’m quieter, Li’s more outgoing.”

This difference is obvious from the minute I sit down with them. An animated Li leans forwards and cracks jokes; Ko quietly slumps in his seat.

Yet, an Asian Games gold (2006) and two bronzes (2002, 2006), as well as their Olympic silver, proves opposites do attract.

It was this yin-yang balance which was core to their consistent success, believes Ko: “I had a more defensive style, whereas Li’s more aggressive. He’s a right-hander, I’m a left-hander, so we were really compatible. We could plug each other’s gaps and protect the other’s weaknesses.”

Li feels their success lay in something far less technical: “Mutual understanding and mutual trust. You had to accept your partner might make some mistakes. It was important to move forward together and grow together. That way, we could be successful.”

Hong Kong’s next table tennis generation, under Li’s watchful eye.

After putting down their paddles in 2014, the HKTTA brought the dynamic duo onto the coaching staff. Ko, who now manages the men’s team, finds it has been a big learning curve: “When I was a player, I only had to worry about myself. Now, I need to focus on other players, on and off the field.”

Li knows that transferring their playing knowledge into coaching roles is easier said than done. “Good athletes don’t necessarily make good coaches. I’ve found my players have had to make me more of a gentleman,” laughs Li, who has taken over the women’s squad.

The social environment is also something they are still getting used to, as coaches. Back in 2003, Li told the South China Morning Post all the team “lived, trained and ate together.” Now, that intimacy seems to be lacking.

“The players tend to spend more time on their iPhones and the Internet. We all used to read books and talk about our game. It’s a different world,” Ko reveals.

More players, but a less intimate setting.

What else has changed has been the composition of the team.

With Hong Kong’s tense socio-political relationship with China, there was strong criticism in the local media when Ko and Li first joined from the Mainland. A 2008 ruling by the International Table Tennis Federation declared that any player over the age of 21 would no longer be able to represent an adopted country in international competition.

When I ask Li about “The Mainland Question”, he looks pensively across the hall, as if recalling his own personal struggle to establish himself in the city.

After a long pause, he says: “Hong Kong people’s perception of success is winning.”

“No one wants to lose. So, Hong Kong needs medals. Winning something improves the country’s image in the sport. More success equals more funding. More funding equals more resources.

“We want to make a big cake so that everyone can have a slice of it.”

He has a point. Since Athens, table tennis’s popularity has skyrocketed in the city. From three players on the full-time national programme in 2003, there are now 17. 13 of them are in the ITTF Top 150, with the men’s Tang Peng ranked 14th.

Most importantly, for Li, the image of the sport has reached a more mainstream audience: “Parents and schools are now getting their kids focused on table tennis. That’s increased involvement in the sport and means we can get more talents from the youth.”

Another world-beater?

Ko and Li, 40 and 41 respectively, know their role in this development has been significant. For a place as small as Hong Kong, any sporting success will have a lasting impact on the region. “The government has pumped in more funding to improve facilities. The focus on science and technology has increased. It’s much more professional. Table tennis has helped move everything forward,” feels Ko.

With Ko and Li at the helm, their silver-winning legacies have been assured. Ko believes its more than just about a couple of pieces of metal: “It poses as the goal for future generations. We pose as an example to players.”

The state of Hong Kong table tennis is strong. Second in Athens was a game changing point for the territory, one that has allowed the sport to expand and build upon its growing stature. “We sometimes hear from suppliers that paddles and balls are sold out,” beams Li.

The “cake” is proving to be extremely appetising.

Cameron Tucker