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Raising the table: China to train foreign ping-pong stars

Chinese table tennis player, Ma Long, is currently ranked #1 overall on the International Table Tennis Federation's world rankings. Four out of the top five world's top ranked players are Chinese.

How do you know when you are thoroughly dominant in a sport?

When the world asks, even insists, that you train the competition.

In an effort to quell complaints about China's worldwide dominance of table tennis competition, China announced last week that they will spend $22.5 million to build the Chinese Academy of Table Tennis – an international institute that will train a new, more competitive, generation of professional foreign players.

China’s supremacy over the table tennis circuit during the last several decades has had few equals. Since table tennis was introduced to the Olympics in 1988, China has won 20 out of 24 gold medals and 41 out of 76 of total medals. 

At the World Table Tennis Championships (WTTC), which are held every two years, China has won every single medal available over the last decade -- except for one.

Meanwhile, in its entire history of participation at the WTTC, which started in 1926, the United States has won just 10 medals in singles and doubles play, the last two in 1956.

It was with this historic backdrop that the General Administration of Sports of China and the Shanghai municipal government agreed to build the new institute. They hope it will eventually train 150 foreign players, as well as 150 Chinese athletes, by 2020.

The government says the academy will be built by September 2011. China has long been criticized for funneling young athletes with potential through Soviet-styled training that is focused intensely on sports excellence, at the cost of traditional educational opportunities. To counter that claim, the academy will offer a four-year program that will blend intensive table tennis training with a traditional educational curriculum.

The move has not come without some criticism by people who can’t understand why Chinese government money is being used to train foreign players.

Jin Shan, director of the sport culture institute under the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, believes that the amount of money China is already spending on table tennis development is too much and should actually be cut.

"Under this logic, should Brazil train Chinese football players?" Jin asked in the South China Morning Post.

But to Chinese officials, the potential political points that China stands to earn from taking the lead in promoting the sport could be worth the financial cost.

After all, China’s recent history is dotted with moments of successful diplomacy through sports, beyond the 1970s “Ping-Pong Diplomacy." In 1984, when the Soviet Union urged scores of nations to boycott the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, China agreed to participate, helping to validate the games that year and consequently make it one of the most financially successful games in history.

And in 2008 under the shadow of violent Tibetan unrest, President George W. Bush refused to boycott the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. He said that missing the ceremony would be an “affront” to the Chinese people and make it "more difficult to be able to speak frankly with the Chinese leadership.”

Nevertheless, Bush's attendance didn't make things any easier for Americans in the table tennis competition. China swept the singles competition, winning all six medals for men and women.