It’s been a few weeks since Dang Qiu won the men’s singles title at the European Championships, but his good mood still hasn’t worn off.
“That I was able to deliver the goods at a crucial moment makes me particularly happy,” the German table tennis player told DW after a recent training session in Düsseldorf.”But I definitely won’t be resting on this success.”
In fact, Qui’s sights are already very much focused on the 2022 World Team Table Tennis Championships in China at the end of the month.
His participation amounts to the dawn of a generational shift in the national team.Qiu’s teammates in Düsseldorf, Timo Boll and Dimitrij Ovtcharov were Germany’s stalwarts for many years, but now it’s the 25-year-old’s turn to take on the leading role at a major international event.
This is not the only reason why the upcoming tournament will be different from all previous such events.
“We know that the Corona pandemic is being fought much more vehemently in China.We have to adjust to that,” Richard Prause, the German national team’s sporting director told DW.
Still, Oiu says he is looking forward to travelling to China next week with a “good feeling overall.” Afterall, he speaks the language, it’s his parents’ homeland and he still has relatives there.Still, “a few concerns remain, especially if there were to be a positive COVID-19 case.”
Chengdu in lockdown
In Chengdu, the venue for the World Team Championships, a strict lockdown was only lifted earlier this week.For more than a fortnight, the 21 million residents were forced to remain cooped up at home.
Now the rules have been relaxed, but restrictions, such as a ban on travelling to and from certain neighborhoods, are still in force, as are mandatory COVID tests.
A general sense of relief at the partial lifting of the restrictions prevails – although not enough to allow a sense of anticipation about the World Team Table Tennis ChampionshipsThis is despite their actual significance.
“All other major events have been canceled, which underscores the importance of table tennis in China,” Prause stressed.
In fact, the World Team Championships are the most important sporting event of the year in China – after the Beijing Winter Olympics.
“We are very proud of that,” a spokesman for table tennis’ world governing body, the ITTF, told DW.”We have worked hard to ensure that the more than 1,000 participants can compete at the highest level.”
Fans facing disappointment
Like the Beijing Winter Games, the tournaments are to be held in a “bubble” and masks will be mandatory almost everywhere.Teams are exempt from the current quarantine requirements when entering China, but they are not allowed to leave designated areas around the arena and hotels during the competitions.
Both Qiu and Prause said they were satisfied with the arrangements.
“What’s important is that there’s the opportunity to take a little walk in the fresh air.Large excursions would not be possible even under normal circumstances,” the German team’s sporting director said.
The locals though, aren’t nearly as impressed.
“It is hard to accept for Chinese table tennis fans that they cannot cheer on their heroes in the tournament hall because of the strict rules,” a local sports newspaper in southern China wrote.
However, “small groups will be there by invitation – similar to the Winter Games,” the world federation points out.
Still, the quarantine rules and restrictions on movement mean many fans in Chengdu and beyond who may have wanted to attend the championships are bound to be disappointed.
“I would love to attend the tournament.But because of the COVID situation, I guess I shouldn’t get my hopes up.It makes me sad,” wrote one fan on the Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo.
Zero-COVID policy causing economic hardship
China is one of the few countries still imposing strict COVID lockdowns on cities and entire regions.At the beginning of September, 33 cities and their 65 million inhabitants were under lockdown, according to the business paper Caixin.
This is slowing down economic development, and discontent is growing.
Song Song runs a software company in ChengduShe told DW that her company has had to cope with heavy losses because many of its customers have slipped into bankruptcy.
“I’m not in the mood for any sporting events right now.I’m just worried about how my company can survive,” she said.”Many of my customers in the service industry can barely pay their employees’ wages.”
Another Chengdu resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, criticized the city for spending a lot of money on a sporting event that promises to bring little or no benefit to Chengdu residents – people, he said, who were still suffering from the effects of a lockdown, that forced some to go without food for a period of days.
Fears of another COVID outbreak are rife, as is the suspicion that the authorities may have imposed the lockdowns prematurely in order not to jeopardize the World Table Tennis Championships.On Weibo, some residents have expressed the fear that the foreign participants could bring the virus back into the city – despite all the precautionary measures.
“When the foreigners have left again, we may be in lockdown again,” one person wrote.
Prestige trumps pandemic
As long as China continues to implement its zero-COVID policy, questions will remain about the country’s ability to host major international sporting events.However, experts note that doing so is a matter of prestige for Beijing.
“Successfully organizing such major events is of great importance to China,” Shi Chenyu of Shanghai Sports University told DW.”This is an opportunity for China to demonstrate its superior organizational capabilities, even when fighting a pandemic.”
Prestige will also be on the line when it comes to China’s performance at the table.The record world champions have gone undefeated at the World Team Championships for the past 20 years.The German team took silver in 2018 – but that was with Boll, Ovtcharov and other more experienced players in the lineup.
Now, Dang Qiu is set to lead what he describes as a “relatively inexperienced and young team, but one with potential.” One that it also aiming to return to Germany with a medal.