Three table tennis stars have publicly apologised in the midst of condemnation from official sports institutions after they boycotted a match in protest of their coach’s removal. Their demonstration received support from many citizens, but condemnation from sports organisations.

Ma Long, Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin failed to attend their second round matches at the International Table Tennis Federation’s Seamaster 2017 ITTF World Tour China Open in Chengdu on Friday evening, giving their opponents automatic forfeit wins.

Liu Guoliang (R), Liu with the Chinese table tennis team. Photos: Weibo/Liu Guoliang, Ma Long.

The three athletes – the world’s top three male players according to the IFFT – posted similar messages on their Weibo accounts saying that they missed Liu Guoliang, who has been a coach for the Chinese table tennis team since 2003. Liu was relieved from his post as chief coach on Tuesday due to a restructuring, according to state news agency Xinhua. He will become the Chinese Table Tennis Association’s vice-chairman instead, despite the fact that the association already has 18 people in the same position.

His transfer came amid a team shakeup. In May, the chief coach of the national women’s team was suspended over a gambling debt scandal.

People walk past walls of messages supporting the table tennis team in Chengdu. Photo: Weibo/想换个名字但是没想好.

Messages of support for the team were reposted by other Chinese table tennis players and coaches, but they have since disappeared from the social networking site, according to Caixin.

‘Patriotism and collectivism’

On Sunday, the athletes posted apologies on their Weibo accounts. The team statement said that the players had acted without fully understanding the situation, and had let emotions affect their decisions.

“We deeply recognise the seriousness of our errors – [we] created a harmful influence on society and let down the many people who love the team, and [we] harmed the Chinese table tennis team’s good image of upholding patriotism and collectivism and determinedly struggling for the glory of the country.”

The boycott met with condemnation from the Chinese Table Tennis Association, from the Chinese government agency responsible for sports, and from the ITTF.

The Association said in a statement on Saturday that it was “deeply shocked and hurt” by the players’ and coaches’ actions, and that the boycott “created a serious [negative] influence on society.”

A wall of sticky notes expressing support of the table tennis team in Chengdu. Photo: Weibo/想换个名字但是没想好.

It added that it would seriously reflect on the problems that the incident revealed and use collective education to “strengthen the team’s patriotism” to create a disciplined team.

The General Administration of Sport also strongly condemned their actions in a statement on Friday. It said the boycott of an international match “showed complete disregard for the professional ethics and integrity of an athlete, as well as for the country’s honour and its interests – [their actions] disrespected the audience and disrespected their opponents, this kind of action is extremely wrong, and we firmly oppose it.”

A wall of sticky notes expressing support for the table tennis team in Chengdu. Photo: Weibo.

It added that the administration required teams and athletes to put patriotism and collectivism above all else, and ordered the CTTA to open an investigation.

The ITTF expressed disappointment and said it would investigate the matter with the CTTA.

Lennon wall 

But the players received many messages of support from their fans online and offline.

On Saturday, Weibo users posted photos of a wall in a subway station in Chengdu that table tennis fans had covered with sticky notes expressing their support for the players’ actions.

Photo: Weibo/想换个名字但是没想好.

Someone wrote: “Full of hot blood, no fear of power, off the court, you are still the idols of Chinese people.”

Others wrote “Go Ma Long! We will always support you,” “Give me back Daddy Liu!” and “We miss Liu Guoliang!”

The images were posted online by Weibo users, despite complaints from some that they were being taken down.

Workers removing the sticky notes. Photo: Weibo/想换个名字但是没想好.

The wall was removed by cleaning staff Sunday afternoon, according to a user who posted her photos online.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.