Painstaking planning key to successful return of elite events, says legend Liu
Chinese Table Tennis Association president Liu Guoliang had plenty to feel pleased about after the curtain came down on the pandemic-interrupted season at the ITTF Finals last weekend.
Men's and women's singles golds for Ma Long and Chen Meng, which followed hot on the heels of another Chinese clean sweep by Fan Zhendong and Chen at the ITTF World Cups, certainly gave Liu cause for satisfaction.
However, he was even more elated by the smooth return of the sport following an eight-month hiatus due to the global health crisis. Thanks to the exhaustive efforts of Chinese organizers and the International Table Tennis Federation, the restart tournaments－staged in Weihai, Shandong province, and Zhengzhou, Henan province－served up a long-awaited fix of elite paddling to the world in an ultra-safe environment for players and spectators alike.
"Now I finally feel a little bit relaxed. The bio-secure bubble we created allowed players, coaches and event staff to be safe after going through medical quarantine and COVID-19 tests," said Liu, who also chairs the World Table Tennis Council.
"It was a daunting task to develop our initial ideas into a reality, step by step. It's really not an easy job to achieve such a big success. Throughout the whole process, the world table tennis community worked closely together with the same passion and resolution. The ITTF considered many places and decided China was the safest place to stage the World Cups and the ITTF Finals.
"It's not easy. So I was super excited when the events finally kicked off. That feeling was exactly like the first time I attended the Olympic Games. I was very proud. It didn't matter how hard it had been. Everything was worthwhile as long as our players could return to international competition."
The ITTF Finals also marked the first time since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world that a top-level international table tennis tournament had allowed spectators into the venue. For ITTF CEO Steve Dainton, the return of fans made the tournament feel "real".
"In Weihai, we welcomed back the players. In Zhengzhou, we are welcoming back the fans," Dainton told ITTF.com. "Being here is hugely emotional. We feel proud, we feel happy and we have so many emotions that it's hard to describe.
"To restart table tennis has been a huge effort. Back in June, we knew that this pandemic was not going away soon and that organizing international events would be very difficult. We knew that we had to try to find a special way ... Now we can proudly say that the hard work is paying off."
The pressure on Liu to deliver extended beyond the performances of Team China's world-beaters. This time the legendary ex-player and coach had a multitude of health and safety issues to grapple with too.
Leaving nothing to chance, all foreign participants were required to return a negative COVID-19 test result up to three days prior to departing for China. After landing in Shanghai, they were then required to undergo a further test before being directed to the designated hotel, where they isolated for three days. All guests submitted a further test on day three, with those returning negative results given the green light to make the journey to Weihai for the men's and women's World Cup tournaments.
All players were provided with COVID-secure transportation from Shanghai to Weihai, ensuring full isolation from external parties throughout the journey. Mandatory tests were carried out upon arrival in Weihai, where everyone served the remainder of their quarantine restrictions at the hotel.
"The restart meant we needed to welcome players, coaches, referees and ITTF staff from 27 countries and regions," said Liu. "We required everyone to go through the 14-day quarantine. Initially some players were anxious about it. But I kept telling them that China has successfully controlled the pandemic and such measures were a precaution to guarantee everyone's safety."
Meeting the players from around the globe reaffirmed Liu's determination to ensure everything ran smoothly.
"I could see it in their eyes that they crave training and competition," said Liu. "During the pandemic, most of them could only train at home. Their love, passion and professionalism towards the sport touched me.
"During this time the first thing I did when I woke up every day was to check my phone. There were countless updates in all of our work groups. We had to arrange when they land in China, when they check in to hotels and if they have had their COVID-19 test on time. It was normal we had meetings till 2 or 3 am in the morning."
The return of the elite competition was also a timely boost for Team China's preparations for next year's Tokyo Olympics.
"Even though our players continued to train and there were also some domestic events, we wanted to raise the bar for them," Liu added. "Competitive sports need passion. The restart of international events creates a different atmosphere for them. Standing in such a beautiful stadium, even I want to play a set."