BEIJING (Reuters) - Deng Yaping, one of China’s greatest athletes, believes hosting the 2008 Olympics could damage her country’s medal hopes if the expectations of the Chinese public are not cooled.
The winner of four Olympic gold medals and 18 world titles before her retirement from table tennis in 1997, Deng knows very well what it is like to carry the burden of that expectation.
“I was an athlete for a long time, from when I was five years old, and I know how hard it is, I know how many pressures there are during the Games,” she told Reuters in an interview.
“I played some Asian Games and some world championship events in China ... and I got even more pressure. I can understand the people wanting us to win (but) no athlete does not want to win.
“So if the general public put on more pressure, it’ll be the other way, not any help.”
Deng was part of the bid team that won the right to host the Games in 2001 and has continued ever since to combine work for the organising committee with an academic career.
The Cambridge University PhD student admits to being excited to be only a year away from the Games, but realises that for the organisers it is likely to be 12 months of unremitting effort.
“The last six years have flown by,” she said. “Now it’s getting hot ... time is limited, so we just keep working to get everything ready for the opening ceremony.”
Deng is no stranger to hard work. She was rejected by her provincial team at the age of 10 and then twice by the national team because of her petite stature.
“My father said, ‘if you agree with them then you should stop playing. If you disagree, you have to show that you have the determination through hard work’,” recalled the 34-year-old, who now stands 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) tall.
“It was true, I wasn’t tall enough, so the only way I could solve this problem was by moving faster, three times as fast as the others. Otherwise you can’t get the ball.”
Deng went on to become the best player of her era, remaining world number one for eight years from 1990 until she hung up her paddle a decade ago. She was also voted her country’s female athlete of the 20th century.
The relative success of China’s women athletes compared to their male compatriots — a factor that will be evident again next August — was the subject of her masters degree thesis “From bound feet to Olympic gold”.
Part of the reason, Deng argued, was the equal treatment of men and women athletes in China’s oft-maligned state sport system but the legacy of history played a part too.
“They suffered for so long,” she said. “Confucian philosophy said Chinese women had to stay at home and serve father, husband, son and they couldn’t even get an education.
“Women had a sharp determination to prove they could make a great contribution to society, when you gave them a chance. Not only for the family.”
Deng’s experience of competing at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Olympics along with her work on the International Olympic Committee’s athletes’ commission meant she was given a role in preparing the Athletes’ Village for 2008.
She believes that helping the athletes to feel comfortable and relaxed, whether they are part of the majority that come to Games for the experience or the few that have a realistic shot at winning a medal, are the most important goals of her department.
They are also keen, however, that the 16,000 officials and athletes accommodated in the village get a chance to experience the undiluted reality of China.
“When you go (to an Olympics) it just changes the whole way you think,” she said. “When you meet normal people and you even get help from them, you just feel so sweet for the human beings.”
It is an exchange that she hopes will also work in reverse for the Chinese people, too.
“The Olympic legacy for Beijing will not only be the venues, not only the roads, but for the Chinese people to know the world,” she said.
“From personal experience, not through the media. It will open Chinese minds, let them understand more about Western culture, history and way of doing things, ways of thinking.”