- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2008

— In terms the masses can understand, Jun Gao likes to pound it between the tackles, and Slovakia’s Eva Odorova, her opponent in Wednesday’s second round of the Olympic women’s table tennis tournament, prefers the West Coast offense.

“The other girl played a soft-ball game, and Gao doesn’t like soft shots coming to her side of the table,” U.S. coach Doru Gheorghe said. “She likes to hit the ball hard.”

Problem was Gao hit the ball hard and often long through the first four-plus games of the players’ best-of-seven match at Peking University. Facing the likely end of her Olympic career, the 39-year Gao adjusted and won in six games, rallying from an 8-5 deficit in Game 5 and storming to an 8-2 lead in the final game.

Gao’s good play continued later in the night when she defeated Japan’s Sayaka Hirano to advance to the fourth round.

If the hard-hitting Gao and teammate/fellow Chinese native Chen Wang continue to move through their brackets, it would provide a boost for U.S. table tennis.

Table tennis never has caught on in the United States outside of the family basement and the public school gym class.

The Chinese, however, treat pingpong like Americans do the NFL, and they are used to destroying the competition. During a Wednesday afternoon session in which no Chinese players played, the gymnasium was about 75 percent full (about 6,000 people).

They had reason to attend. In addition to a Gao for the United States, a Wu played for the Dominican Republic, a Ni for Luxembourg, a Xian for France and a Sang for Austria.

“We have [American players], but it’s so hard,” U.S. team leader Bob Fox said. “The kids back home don’t grow up with it; they grow up throwing baseballs and taking jump shots. The kids here in China, from the day they look at a television or go to the recreation center, they’re seeing the correct way to play the game, and it’s more than trying to hit the beer bottle in the corner of the table. We have a tremendous challenge to get past that.”

The United States never has won a medal in table tennis, but players like Gao are trying to influence the future of the sport even when they’re done playing.

Gao is Chinese-born and Chinese-raised and lives in Shanghai. But she competes for the United States and lists Gaithersburg as her hometown after moving to the United States in the mid-1990s, becoming a citizen and then becoming eligible to play for the United States, extending an international career that started more than 15 years ago.

Fox first saw Gao play in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when she won silver in doubles play. She already had made several trips to the United States and moved here in 1993 when she married an American citizen (they later divorced). She didn’t begin competing for the United States until 1999, and when Beijing was awarded these Olympics she stuck with the sport, even if that meant moving back to China so she could train against high-caliber opponents and play in professional leagues in Japan and Germany.

“It feels great to play here because the Olympics are only once every four years and this is the first time they’ve been in my own country,” Gao said. “It’s more exciting than I thought - being Chinese and playing for the U.S. makes me feel more excited.”

Gao turns 43 in 2012 but hasn’t ruled out competing in the London Olympics. She gave a telling reason: “You never know. Maybe not enough players are good.”

The U.S. program hopes that isn’t the case. Sure, if Gao is among the top singles players, she will compete. But Fox and company hope their junior program develops to the point where a new generation can make their Olympic debuts.

“We added a new player [Wang] from China, and she’s a good player,” Gao said. “For the team event, only one good player is not enough. Now we have three. We’re not at the top of the world, but we’re better.”

Making the bronze medal match this week was a huge step for the Americans. It seems the only way for a nontraditional sport in the United States to catch on is by having Olympic success. That Phelps guy is trying to convince people that swimming deserves to be more than a once-every-four-years sport (good luck with that one).

Watching the sport in person at this level, it’s striking how quick the matches go, mostly because the rallies are so short. The first game lasted 7 minutes, 35 seconds. The second game lasted 4:14. Gao and Odorova played 110 points in 52 minutes.

Several Chinese fans in attendance chanted “USA, USA” after Gao finished her match.

“This is more exciting than I thought,” she said. “I’m Chinese and I’m in China, but I’m playing for the U.S.”

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