By Chua Chin Hon, China Bureau Chief
BEIJING: A teary Gao Ning, Singapore's top male table-tennis player, crashed out of his first Olympics in just 24 minutes yesterday, losing 0-4 to unheralded Tan Ruiwu of Croatia.
What raised hushed whispers at the Peking University Gymnasium, however, was not the manner of his defeat, but the surprising absence of a coach on court-side to advise and cheer the Singapore paddler on.
While the presence of a coach is not mandated by the rule book, he or she can often play an instrumental role by recommending tactical changes or simply by encouraging the player.
And Gao appeared highly unsettled by the absence of Zu Haining, the coach who was supposed to be in his corner. He was so upset that near the end of the match, he hardly contested some of the points.
As it turned out, Zu was at the opposite end of the gymnasium, keeping watch over another Singapore player, Yang Zi, as he pulled off a major upset against Taiwan's Chuan Chih-yuan, the seventh seed.
Yang, who lost 2-4 in his subsequent match against Croatia's Zoran Primorac, was supposed to have been looked after by another coach, Chen Jian, according to Antony Lee, manager of the Singapore table tennis team.
But Chen fell ill, and so Zu was tasked with looking after both players as part of a "contingency plan".
This appeared feasible on paper, as Yang was scheduled to play his third- round match at 1pm, an hour before Gao was due to take to the court.
But Yang's match began only at 1.25pm and ended about an hour later as he and Chuan stretched their match to seven games.
By the time Yang's match was over, it was too late for Zu to help Gao, said the team manager.
Gao, who had aimed to make the top eight in the singles competition, had to fight back tears when asked about the match and whether the absence of a coach contributed to his early exit.
His opponent Tan said: "I know what it must feel like to lose without a coach on your side."
The incident earned a sharp rebuke from Singapore Table Tennis Association president Lee Bee Wah, who said action should be taken against those who "neglected their duties".
She added: "I feel the team manager and head coach have a responsibility. How can a player go on court without a coach?"
She also questioned why the Singapore team, which had four coaches in Beijing for the Olympics, could not spare one for Gao's match.
Lee, the team manager, explained that it was "not so simple" as the two remaining coaches had already returned to the Athletes' Village, where they were preparing Singapore's Li Jiawei and Feng Tianwei for their quarter-final contests yesterday.
He acknowledged, though, that as the team manager, he had responsibility for what happened yesterday.
"We do feel sorry for Gao Ning and we have apologised for the whole incident," he added. "Gao has accepted it magnanimously that it's really beyond our control, and we hope to learn from this."
Weighing in on what he called an "unfortunate incident", Team Singapore's chef de mission Dr Tan Eng Liang said: "As far as we are concerned, the issue is closed.
"I'm quite satisfied with the explanation given by Antony. Whether the (table tennis) association wants to go further, that is its privilege."
STTA president Lee signalled a tough stance on the issue when she said last night: "We cannot accept such things happening in such an important tournament.
"The damage to Gao Ning is beyond repair. His Olympic dream is shattered."
For Gao, the man at the centre of the controversy, yesterday's exit marked a painful end to his first and potentially last Olympic outing. He is 26.
Asked what he had poured into the last four years of preparations, he took a long sigh and said: "Let's not talk about it."
Additional reporting by Marc Lim
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 22, 2008.