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Li Fu-jung, an engagingly cocky young man from Shanghai, may be on his way to a world championship in table tennis. But even if—against all the signs-he fails to make it, his place in the record books of the sport is secure and brilliant. So is his symbol value to Communist China which, in a mere handful of years, has trained its table-tennis players to such a peak of skill that they are in the international forefront of this once uniquely Western game. Li lost out in a try for the world title in table-tennis singles last spring in Prague. It was no doubt disappointing to his ambition but not to his patriotism, for he was defeated by another Chinese, Chuang Tse-tung. Chuang was defending his title as world champion won in Peking in 1961. In the 10-day tournament in the Czechoslovakian capital (with 55 nations competing), China took three titles out of seven at stake; Japan won the other four. In the finals for the men's doubles title, all contestants were Chinese.
The prestige the victors bring home with them seems to Americans, used to the more spectacular champions of baseball and boxing, out of all proportion to the achievement; but table tennis has caught the fancy of the Chinese, and its experts are headlined as national heroes in the government-controlled press. It may have been astonishing to the propagandists that table tennis, of all sports, should turn out to be the most popular with the masses. But there was nothing ideologically against it, for it is official policy in China that everybody should be in the pink of condition. The workers like the doctrine because they get time off from work for sport.
Li Fu-jung is 21 years old and an undergraduate at the Shanghai Institute for Physical Culture. He hopes to become a sports instructor and table-tennis trainer.
Li is about 5 feet 7 inches tall, broad-shouldered and stocky for his height. He has sinewy forearms, long-muscled upper arms and the legs of a boxer, with well-developed thighs. His complexion is ruddy-tan rather than olive; he has thick black hair. "At school," he told an interviewer not long ago, "we had an old wooden tennis table and some very much used plain wooden racquets with no sandpaper or rubber surfaces. I often stayed after school to play with anyone who would play with me. When I came home late my father used to make fun of me and say, 'A queer sport you've chosen—such a tiny ball.' I liked the game too much to mind the teasing. By the time I was in the fourth grade I had learned how to hold the racquet like a pen. It is the way we do in China and in Japan and Korea. Maybe it is because we are used to chopsticks. By the time I was 12 I was a member of my grade-school team. I went to high school when I was 14 and was on the school team there too. Then I went to a special sports school. There are 12 special sports schools in Shanghai."
The schools, he explained, are run by the Institute of Physical Culture and are supported by the city of Shanghai. Only the most promising youngsters are sent to the schools, where the training concentrates on international competition sports. Li was precisely the kind of athlete the school authorities wanted. "For me," he said, "this school meant hour after hour of playing, with the white ball flying back and forth over the net and with me getting surer of myself. Opponents didn't surprise me so much, and I learned how to meet almost any kind of ball."
In 1959, when he was 17, Li moved into the big time. He was chosen for a "team of representatives"—a national cadre of 50 for international play. "It was a different father who greeted me then," he said, "from the one who laughed about the 'tiny ball." This time he was proud of me. He liked table tennis now—gave me hints on how to play. He often referees Shanghai matches."
The conversion of the elder Li is a small sample of the table-tennis fever of the People's Republic. Even more than the rest of China, Shanghai has taken to the game. Li's father works in the Shanghai Turbine Factory where there are 140 teams. Another employee of the factory is Hsu Yin-sheng, China's third-seeded player. Four to 10 persons form a team; they play among themselves and in championship matches with other Shanghai factories. Some observers (who of course have to do their observing at rather a distance) say that Peking is even more addicted to table tennis than is Shanghai.
The competition was tough, Li found when he joined the national cadre. "I knew I was entering the most important period of my fairly short sports career," he said. "I kept asking myself, "Will I do well or will I be defeated by dozens of outstanding players growing up in many Chinese cities?' " When a team was chosen to represent China for the world championships at Dortmund in West Germany in 1959, Li failed to make it.
The Dortmund meet was a new goad for Li's ambition. In fact, for all his sports-minded countrymen. The men's singles there was won by Jung Kuo-tuan. Propaganda apart, the victory had a tremendous effect. It heightened Chinese hopes of coming to the front in other sports, and it turned the popularity of table tennis in China into something very like a craze. Players and would-be players, who numbered only in thousands before, multiplied to tens of thousands. European followers of the sport reckon that China now has at least one million players.
From Li's point of view, the best news out of Dortmund was the announcement that the 1961 championships would be held in Peking. "The year 1961 was my lucky year," he said. "I was not yet 19, but good training at table tennis and other sports helped me in the national tournament." This preceded the Peking contests, and Li, who had trained with a vengeance after being left off the Dort mund squad, did sensationally well. He won all individual games he entered. He made the finals in the men's singles and doubles and in the mixed doubles. It was the first major test of his stamina, a strain on his muscles and nerves. A former European champion said of his performance: "Li Fu-jung left no one in doubt. He won all events, one after the other. He used his own system of play with so many variations that they quite escaped the European observer of the pen-holder system. He spent hours and hours in conference with his trainers. Many times he had to change the style of certain services and drives, and all of this needed a lot of concentration, calmness, antlike diligence."