A 58-year-old table tennis player representing Luxembourg at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games has been dubbed the “Shanghai auntie” by the Chinese internet.
Ni Xialian was born and raised in Shanghai and is the oldest athlete to compete in table tennis in Olympic history. She has competed at five Games.
When Ni played Shin Yu-bin, a 17-year-old South Korean athlete, on July 25, people described the match as a “fight between a grandma and a grandchild”. Ni lost the match three to four.
As Ni’s profile grew, cyber-sleuths discovered that she was once a top athlete for China’s national table tennis team.
At her peak, she helped China win the team championship at the 37th World Table Tennis Championships in Tokyo in 1983. Ni and her partner Guo Yuehua won the mixed doubles championship at the same tournament.
She retired from China’s national team in the late 1980s and started playing table tennis in clubs in Europe.
Ni first represented the small European country at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Since then, she has taken part in five Olympics and was the Luxembourg flag-bearer at the Rio Games in 2016.
People in China were quick to latch on to her joyful personality, and a scene of her jumping like a child when she won the bronze medal at a European competition two years ago went viral.
On Douyin, someone wrote, “This auntie is so cute!” and another said, “Her optimistic and persistent spirit inspires us to work harder”.
A moment of self-confidence also amused people. She said: “I will exercise as long as I stay healthy. It’s a good thing for me if I qualify for the Olympics without much extra effort.”
In an interview with the Shanghai-based news portal The Paper, Ni said she does not exercise that much because of her age.
“A teenage athlete can exercise for over 10 hours a day while I only exercise for a combined 10 hours per week.
"If I do the sports as much as young people, I will likely get injured or sick,” she said.
“I know where my limit is, but I cannot breach it. Sometimes I feel helpless.”
Ni said a championship or the public spotlight is not important to her, and she is more focused on her health and family.
“The national team of Luxembourg needs me. If I agree to stay, the Luxembourg Olympic committee will allocate funds to the ping pong association, and kids will be supported to play this sport. So how can I refuse them?” she said.
“They also told me my spirit is a good example for kids.”
Ni still adopts the Shanghai dialect when talking with her mother and her children at home, she said.
“I look forward to visiting Shanghai when the coronavirus pandemic situation gets better. In Shanghai, I can visit my relatives, I can play ping pong, and I can travel around China. How wonderful it will be!” said Ni.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.