China's top sports body, the General Administration of Sports, has become the target of national ire after it condemned three of the world’s best table tennis players for refusing to play in the China Open being held in Guangzhou to protest the removal of their head coach, Liu Guoliang (劉國梁).

Xinhua reported on June 20 that the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) was removing Liu from his position of chief coach of the team. In a bid to “restructure” the national table tennis team, the CTTA announced it was abolishing the positions of “chief coach” and “head coach” and setting up separate coaching teams for the male and female teams.

Liu was appointed head coach of the national table tennis men’s team in 2003, and became chief coach of the national table tennis team in 2013. Under his leadership, China’s national table tennis team swept through the 2008 and 2012 Olympics winning all the gold medals. Liu himself won titles in international tournaments including the World Championships, World Cup and the Olympic Games, and has announced his intentions to lead the team to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In April, he handed coaching duties of the men’s team to his deputy, Qin Zhijian (秦志戩), but remained chief coach of the national table tennis team.

Liu’s removal follows the suspension of the head coach of the national table tennis female’s team Kong Linghui (孔令輝) amid a gambling scandal.

In protest of their coach’s removal, three of China’s top players Ma Long (馬龍), Xu Xin (許昕) and Fan Zhendong (樊振東), along with two fellow coaches Ma Lin and Qin Zhijian quit the China Open mid-competition.

“We no longer have the heart to compete because we miss you, Liu Guoliang,” the players on June 23 wrote on their Weibo accounts. The posts have been deleted.

The CTTA released a statement on June 24, saying the players' actions had “serious social implications.” It further elaborated on the reason for restructuring the coaching team. Following women’s team coach Kong’s suspension, the association conducted an investigation which found “deep-rooted management issues” — the association claimed that Liu had placed more effort in coaching the men’s team.

The General Administration of Sports on June 25 also ordered an investigation into the issue along with a statement in which it accused the players of “ignoring national honor and interests” and “disrespecting the public.”

All of the players involved have since issued apologies on their social media accounts.

“We did not understand the full scope of the national team restructuring, and deeply regret our impulsive actions and the social implications of what we have done. We have disappointed everyone who loves Chinese table tennis and destroyed the reputation of the team as patriots. We have failed to uphold the values of collectivism and striving to win glory for the country," the statement reads.

The shakeup of the national team seems to have become a target for netizens expressing their anger at bureaucracy interfering in sports, with many commenting that “outsiders are managing insiders (professional sportsmen).”

Chinese netizens have come out in force to support the players, saying that the CTTA and the General Administration of Sports were “killing the national sport.”

Insiders claim the “restructuring” was an effort by General Administration Director Gou Zhongwen (苟仲文) to “cleanse the administration of old faction members” such the General Administration of Sports Deputy Director Cai Zhenhua (蔡振華), German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported on its Chinese-language site.

Radio France International also reported on its Chinese-language site that the removal of Liu was part of a power play between Gou and Cai ahead of the 19th National Party Congress.

Gou is a prime example of an “outsider managing insiders,” as he has no background in sport, according to Deutsche Welle. He holds a degree in electrical engineering and was named vice minister of Information Technology in 2002 and vice mayor of Beijing in April 2008.

Liu Guoliang’s transfer as a vice president of the CTTA is another point of contention, Deutsche Welle reports. The CTTA already has 22 vice presidents, and netizens and insiders both suspect that Liu’s transfer is a demotion.

China is a superpower in world table tennis, winning 28 out of 32 gold medals awarded since table tennis was included in the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

Editor: Edward White