SINGAPORE: Deliberations on whether Feng Tianwei should be dropped from the national team started more than two years ago, when Ellen Lee took the helm at the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA), she revealed on Friday (Oct 28).
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia at the STTA headquarters, Lee admitted the decision to let Feng go was a difficult one which will stir emotions, seeing as the player is synonymous with table tennis in Singapore due to her achievements in the international arena. But the former Member of Parliament also said it was a process the STTA had to go through to decide what we want for the future.
“It is very tough because I know that there will be a lot of questioning and a lot of unhappiness created. But then in the management of a sports association, I have to make a very tough decision to ensure that the sport itself can go on even after Feng Tianwei has left STTA,” Lee said.
“If we only concentrated on just continuing to develop and assist her in her games, then we are not being fair to our youth and to our younger players in Singapore who are trying very hard as well to be able to go into the place that she has occupied.
“We have to promote the sport, we have to make sure we groom enough players to take over any vacancies that come about.”
The STTA this week announced a new strategic plan for the new Olympic cycle, with a focus on rejuvenation and youth development, which also dropped 30-year-old Feng, who is Singapore's most successful Olympian and highest-ranked women’s player.
And while veteran men’s player Gao Ning, 34, had been handed a new role as assistant coach, leading to a planned retirement after the 2018 Asian Games, Feng has been left out in the cold.
Addressing the issue, Lee said Gao has proven himself to be a team player. Said Lee: “(Gao) has all along been playing part-coach to our local players. We feel that he will be in a better position to help us groom (the younger players) and play at the same time.
“I think Feng Tianwei has her own plans. She wants to continue playing in the international scene, and therefore in terms of being able to coach the way Gao Ning wants to do, there would be differences in terms of time management and things like that.
“Therefore we feel that retaining Gao Ning is a better choice; perhaps we will be able to see him contribute more.”
Asked if there were even discussions at all for Feng to take on a similar role as Gao, Lee said there was no opportunity to discuss the matter.
She also refused to be drawn into confirming reports that said the decision not to renew Feng’s contract was due to various run-ins with STTA. The reports alleged that these included disputes over prize money, disagreement over coaches and competitions, and over "false" reimbursement claims, allegedly for 200 eggs over nine days, and 10 tins of milk over three days.
“It’s hard for me to comment on people’s speculations,” she said. “STTA has never made official statements to that extent, and I guess if there is an angle that people want to create that really makes her look bad, STTA cannot be held responsible for that.
“We would just urge people who are reading that to be more mindful whether or not claims that are made in such manner should be believed.”
Separately, STTA issued a statement saying comments made on Facebook by its deputy president David Sim, calling Feng a "disgrace to the nation", are his personal views, and not made on behalf of the association.
"Regarding the recent media reports, Feng Tianwei was cautioned about the proper claiming procedure but she did not falsify nor claim more than what she was permitted," it said.
File photo of Feng Tianwei of Singapore celebrating a winning point in the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Photo: AP/Petros Giannakouris)
NEED FOR REJUVENATION
Lee said the decision to go for rejuvenation ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was in part spurred by what is happening in other countries.
“You look at Japan - the recent ones who have actually shot to prominence are very young, teenagers. Even the other countries, their players are getting younger, and much fiercer in their games as well, much quicker.
“So these are considerations we have also to bear in mind when we talk about rejuvenation. Knowing there are all these opponents outside, how do we prepare our players to go up against them.”
With the next Southeast Asian Games just 10 months away, Lee said the younger players such as Zhou Yihan, Lin Ye, Zeng Jian, as well as Clarence Chew and Pang Xue Jie will need to step up and prove themselves, even if medals may not be so easily won.
“It will be different, but we hope that the difference in itself would spur (the players) to greater heights because we cannot take it as a given that we will always win at the Games.
“In sport, there will never be a player or a country that will always be reigning above all the others. I always believe that things come round a circle and there will be opportunities for other people.
“The question is - do we want to seize those opportunities and make it come true that we can continue to win medals?”
Feng has said in a blog post that she will continue to take part in tournaments. Lee said she is still unaware as to what the world-ranked 6th player wants to do, but would be willing to facilitate her future participation in international meets.
“If there should be any of those games where, by way of world rankings, she is still considered the best for Singapore, we will not object. But because this is something we have never tried before, we will find a way to get it done,” Lee said.
“We also have to get her to enter into some agreement with us, an athlete’s agreement perhaps, because if she’s going to represent Singapore, everything she does affects Singapore and therefore us as the association, because we have to approve and endorse her play."