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Not much celebration as Zhang defeats Wang to give China Olympic gold again in table tennis

08/02/2012 03:18 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - China has won two gold medals in two days in Olympic table tennis — and the two silver medals to boot.

In other sports — and in other nations — that would call for chest-bumping, high-fiving, boasting and raucous celebrations. At least, a few smiles.

There was almost none of this from Zhang Jike, who defeated teammate Wang Hao in Thursday men's singles final. Zhang's lone hint of happiness, celebrating his first Olympic gold medal, lasted about as long as a good pingpong rally.

After the winning point to take the match 4-1, Zhang leaped over a one-meter barrier surrounding the playing area — looking like Chinese Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang — raced to the medal podium and kneeled down and kissed the top platform designated for the gold medallist .

"It was spontaneous," he said. "If you plan everything, you can't do it well."

That was the beginning — and the end — of any public show of joy or surprise.

Minutes later on the medal podium, his eyes glazed over and he seemed far away. Taking questions from Chinese and international reporters, he often looked distracted, burying his chin in his shoulder as he looked down.

"We just finished a very exciting competition, and so my whole body is still not there," Zhang said. "I may appear a little down, but that's normal."

Chinese players, of course, are expected to win. The sport is a national pastime for 1.3 billion people, and the country has won 22 of 26 gold medals since the game entered the 1988 Olympics — and beating a friend and teammate calls for restraint and respect.

It was very similar in Wednesday women's final when Li Xiaoxia defeated teammate Ding Ning.

This was Wang's third Olympic final — and third silver medal. He also lost to Zhang a year ago in the finals of the world championships.

He said he's now focused on the upcoming team competition, and a little pep talk that men's coach Liu Guoliang gave them both before the big match.

"He was talking to both of us and encouraging us to play well," Wang said. "Lose or win, we must be positive for the team competition. ... To be honest, I feel more disappointment for my fans than myself. I will still do my best. I hope my fans can be strong along with me."

The happiest guy was bronze medallist Dimitrij Octcharov of Germany, who defeated Chuang Chih-Yuan of Taiwan to pick up his first medal.

"To win a single Olympic medal is the biggest thing for any sportsman, particularly a table tennis player," he said.

Asked how to beat the Chinese, Octcharov replied: "It would be very great if there were a special recipe how to beat the Chinese. They are very well prepared, particularly in the big tournaments. ... It makes it very difficult to beat them."

The governing body of table tennis — the ITTF — has tried tinkering with rules to give others a chance. This time only two singles players are allowed from a nation — down from three in Beijing. That guarantees at least one nation other than China wins a medal in singles. That also put crushing pressure on the Chinese to deliver.

In the world championships, China enters seven or eight players in singles. There was no cushion with only two in the Olympics.

China men's coach Liu Guoliang, a double gold medallist in 1996, would like to see a bit more competition.

"I'd be happy to see the overall standard improve," Liu said. "But of course, I want Chinese players to stay on top."

That seems inevitable. China's Soviet-style sports schools keeps producing great athletes. They're identified early and honed through thousands of hours of practice by the time they're teenagers. And most careers are planned by sports officials.

Liu, who was on the bench to coach Zhang and Wang in the other matches, watched from the stands in the sold-out 6,000-seat venue — huge by table-tennis standards.

"One is like an elder son, and the other is like a younger son," Liu said.

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Follow Stephen Wade at https://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP

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