As millions of people in the Chinese city of Chengdu exited a weeks-long Covid-19 lockdown last month, hundreds of professional table tennis players from 30 countries boarded charter flights into the metropolis – freshly sanitized paddles in hand – to compete in the 2022 World Team Table Tennis Championships Final.
No quarantine required.
While China’s relentless focus on controlling the pandemic is weighing on its economy and its people, the rules are being relaxed for elite players of table tennis, one of the country’s most popular pastimes. Delayed by five months, the Championships Final was the first major international sporting event since the Beijing Winter Games. A follow-on competition is now underway despite rising local infection rates.
“You could say we’re an exception, but I think we’re the start,” said Steve Dainton, International Table Tennis Federation Group Chief Executive Officer. “I think sport is a soft diplomacy tool.”
The organizers relied on the closed-loop system perfected during the Winter Games for the 10-day tournament, keeping nearly 1,300 athletes, organizers, event staff inside a bubble that allowed them to interact with each other while remaining isolated from almost everyone else. Charter flights made it easier to attend at a time when international travel into China was limited.
Two-time Olympian Adriana Diaz, who represents Puerto Rico, submitted three negative PCR tests in September and obtained a visa to enter China for the first event, traveling from Japan through Singapore on one of the two designated planes for the tournament. A month later, she was in the playoff rounds for the World Table Tennis Cup in Xinjiang.
“I’ve been with the same people for one month, it’s been crazy,” said Diaz, 21, in a video interview with Bloomberg between matches. “I’m already besties with all of them probably.”
Inside the Bubble
Life inside the bubble includes strict rules, such as wearing masks at all times except while competing, daily PCR tests, seating limited to two people and daily temperature reporting via a health monitoring mobile app. The restrictions cover other actions that most people wouldn’t ever contemplate.
“You can’t blow the ball or dry your sweat on the table — many things that before we were used to, we now have to control that a little bit,” Diaz said. “But not many people can come to China because of the pandemic. We’re just very lucky and I’m just so grateful that I get to play again and represent Puerto Rico.”
These rules applied during competition at the world championships in Chengdu that started Sept. 30 and at the two events that followed: the World Table Tennis tournament in Macau and the World Table Tennis Cup in Xinjiang that’s slated to wrap up this weekend.
Outside of the competition arena in Xinjiang, the Covid situation remains strained in some areas. Restrictions in Urumqi, the capital, intensified in the lead up to the Communist Party congress in mid-October, after easing following a weeks-long lockdown in September. The status of the curbs are unclear, with some residents saying they have been shut inside their homes since mid-August.
Ping Pong Diplomacy
Table tennis is wildly popular in China, where 30 million people play what is considered by many to be the national sport at least twice a week, according to the Chinese Table Tennis Association. It also has served a political function, with the “Ping Pong diplomacy” of the 1970s leading an American team to become the first US delegation to visit China since the Communist takeover in 1949.
The sport still seems to engender favorable treatment. While the International Table Tennis Federation was permitted to hold the world championships and two professional tour events in September and October, organizers of other major sporting activities haven’t been as lucky.
The Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games, a multi-sport event, and the Asian Para Games have been delayed until 2023. The World Athletics Indoor Championships, a biennial indoor track and field competition first scheduled for 2020, has been pushed back until 2025, while World Taekwondo and the International Canoe Federation were forced to move competition events out of China.
There are a number of things that could be the X factor working in favor of table tennis. There is sizable sponsorship money tied to the world championship events, generating millions of dollars in revenue, and the pull of the sport itself.
“Just about everybody you speak to in China has played table tennis or does play table tennis,” said ITTF’s Dainton. “That’s the absolute key reason: it’s a sport for the people.”
Dainton, who admits to having had some sleepless nights and doubts about whether the tournaments would go on despite lockdowns, attributes some of the federation’s success to its strong ties with Chinese officials.
“It’s quite fortunate to have one of the sport’s most famous people ever working closely with us,” he said. “That man is Liu Guoliang.”
Liu won every major world tournament title, including World Championships, World Cup and the Olympic Games, during his career. He serves as ITTF deputy president, the Chinese Table Tennis Association president and the current WTT Council chair.
China swept the Chengdu championships that ended Oct. 9, defending both titles in the men’s team and women’s team events, and claimed gold in both singles events at the subsequent World Table Tennis Macau. Chinese players are favored to win in Sunday’s WTT Cup final.
For overseas players, getting into China wasn’t the only challenge. Organizers tried to keep the closed-loop bubble Covid-free. Despite the virus countermeasures, a handful of infections were reported over the course of a month, according to ITTF.
“I do believe we have a model here that can work for hosting major international events inside China,” said Dainton. “It’s absolutely possible.”
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.