U.S. table tennis: Who says you can't go home again?
BEIJING -- All four members of the U.S. table tennis team are from China, so there figures to be some mixed emotions when the Olympic competition begins next week.
"I have Chinese and American fans cheering for me," said women's team member Gao Jun, a silver medalist for China in the 1992 Barcelona Games. "I grew up here. I lived in Beijing for eight years. I feel so happy I can play here."
Just don't expect the Americans to enjoy any kind of homecourt advantage. No country plays table tennis as well as China, which has won the last four men's world team championships and 16 titles overall. The 17-time champion women's team has lost just one world championship since 1975.
Which is one reason many teams, not just the Americans, will have native Chinese competing here. And U.S. coach Teodor Gheorghe, an immigrant himself from Romania, says his players' background will help them cope with the rabid following table tennis has in China.
"They are not afraid. They are really excited," he said. "Everybody wants to play in their country. We've played against Chinese teams. We played against Chinese players.
"Yeah, the crowd was cheering for China. [But] they are experienced players. They know had to handle this."
Yet, the Beijing competition will be unlike any other Olympic table tennis event because while the sport was seen as something of a curiosity in places such as Athens and Atlanta, it's the national sport in China.
"It's a little bit overwhelming," Gheorghe said of his players' reaction. "It's a good feeling. It's not a bad feeling. It makes them happy. They feel good. They feel important. Like we didn't waste our life playing this sport. [It's] a dream come true.
"Everybody was very glad when China won the [Olympic bid]. We hope that all this will really promote table tennis all over the world."
To compete for a U.S. Olympic team, foreign-born athletes must become naturalized citizens, a process everyone on the table tennis team has completed. But some parts of that process have apparently been easier to complete then others.
"When I'm in the U.S. I miss China. When I'm in China I miss the U.S.," admitted Gao who, like teammate Chen Wang, still lives in China. "But one thing I don’t miss is American food. I'm eating only Chinese food."
-- Kevin Baxter and Barbara Demick
Photo: Nan Li, left, returns the ball to Whitney Ping during a round-robin tournament in the table tennis trials for the U.S. Olympic team in January. Li won the match. Credit: Matt Rourke / Associated Press