The Chinese table tennis team is eager to expand its fan base and draw more attention to the sport by strengthening interaction between the national players and the public, men's coach Liu Guoliang said during a ceremony on Monday announcing Dubai's sponsorship of the team.
China table tennis players continued to monopolize the game last year, sweeping all four gold medals at the London Olympics.
However, the national team's dominance has not translated into more fans and has in fact stirred debate that China's monopoly is hindering the sport's development internationally as it is becoming too one-sided.
To attract more fans, the men's national team initiated an online vote on several popular websites on Jan 4. The three candidates who drew the most votes were granted free berths in the final round of team qualification for the 2013 World Table Tennis Championships in Paris in May.
Beijing Olympic champion Ma Lin led the way with 825,094 votes, while three-time Olympic singles runner-up Wang Hao and Tianjin player Hao Shuai ranked second and third.
Liu announced the results on Monday morning.
Those three will compete with four first and second-round qualification winners and two players recommended by the coaching team for the five spots at the Championships.
The coach said such gambits could tighten the team's connection with its fans, and said the idea has been met with open arms by the public.
"Our biggest concern is that the fans don't care about our activities, and people pay little attention to the sport of table tennis," Liu said.
"Wang motivated his Korean fans to take part in the voting. Ma brought in (retired Chinese swimmer) Guo Jingjing to help solicit votes for him, so people who weren't familiar with them in the past are starting to acquire some knowledge about them"
Zhang Jike, who became the fastest player to win the table tennis Grand Slam by sweeping titles at the 2011 Worlds, the World Cup 2011 and the London Olympics in only 445 days, led the voting in the initial period, but surprisingly slipped out of the top three.
"Though Zhang and Ma Long have distinguished themselves with outstanding skills, they are still new faces in the sport and need time to enhance their reputations," Liu said.
The voting has raised some concerns about whether it is appropriate to have a mass poll to influence national team selection.
"The three players only won a free ride to the team's final-round selection, and they still need to prove themselves to play at the Championships," Liu said.
The team will continue to interact with fans during the competition in May.
"We expect a greater connection with our fans during the event to pay them back for their support," Liu said. "As long as it doesn't affect the competition itself, I believe it's good to get more people involved, and the players are also happy with that."
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