Dang Qiu is in a good mood. A few weeks ago, the 25-year-old German won the European title. “Having delivered at the right moment, that’s what makes me particularly happy,” he revealed in an interview with DW immediately after the training session in Düsseldorf. “But I’m definitely not going to rest on my laurels.” For the upcoming Team World Cup, he will lead the German national team for the first time. It is the first step towards a generational change that is slowly becoming apparent. After successful years with top players such as Timo Boll and Dimitrij Ovtcharov, his teammates in Düsseldorf, Qiu is playing as a single player for the first time in the front row at a World Cup.
This is not the only reason why the title fights have special omens. “We know that the corona pandemic is being fought much more strictly in China. We have to adapt to that,” says Richard Prause, the sports director of the German team. “Overall, I have a good feeling” about going to China next week, says Qiu He speaks the language, has family there, it is his parents’ homeland – and yet “a few concerns remain, especially if a corona test were positive.”
Lockdown in Chengdu
In Chengdu, the venue for the World Team Championships, a strict lockdown was only lifted earlier this week. The 21 million inhabitants had to spend more than two weeks at home.
Now the rules are relaxed. Restrictions, such as the ban on commuting between certain districts, continue to apply, as do mandatory corona tests. However, the relief of the people over the regained freedom of movement outweighs this. The Table Tennis World Cup, which was moved from spring to autumn, has hardly moved people’s minds so far.
The importance is enormous. “All other major events in various sports have been cancelled, which underlines the importance of table tennis in China,” emphasizes Richard Prause, Sports Director of the German Table Tennis Association. After the Olympic Winter Games, the Team World Championships are the most important sporting event of the year in China. “We’re on it very proud,” said a spokesman for the world table tennis association ITTF when asked by DW. “We have worked hard to ensure that the more than 1000 participants can play at the highest level.”
Fans probably won’t be there
Like the Beijing Games, the tournament will take place in a “bubble”. Masks are a must almost everywhere. The teams are exempt from the applicable quarantine requirement when entering China, but are not allowed to leave defined areas around the hall and the hotels during the competitions. “That’s enough,” say Qiu and Prause from the German team. “It is important that there is the opportunity to do a little lap in the fresh air. Large excursions would not be possible under normal circumstances,” the German sports director points out. The rules for the Chinese helpers and the hotel staff who are in direct contact remain strict: they have to be in quarantine after the World Cup.
“It is very bitter for the Chinese table tennis fans that they cannot cheer for their idols in the hall because of the strict rules,” criticized a local sports newspaper in southern China. “Small groups will be there by invitation – similar to the Winter Games,” the world association said. In any case, many fans in Chengdu and other regions hope that they will still get the chance to be there. In reality, this will be extremely difficult because quarantine rules are also in force when traveling within China. “I would love to go to the tournament games but I guess I shouldn’t get my hopes up because of the COVID situation. It makes me sad,” one Weibo user wrote in a post.
Zero-COVID policy brings big cuts
China is one of the few countries to continue to adhere to its zero-COVID policy. Strict lockdowns in cities and entire regions, draconian measures and mandatory mass tests are the tools of choice. At the beginning of September, 33 cities and thus 65 million inhabitants were affected by a lockdown in China, the business journal Caixin calculates. This is slowing down economic development and dissatisfaction is growing.
Song Song runs a software company in Chengdu. In an interview with DW, she tells DW that her company has had to cope with severe losses because many of its customers have gone bankrupt. “I’m not in the mood for any sporting events right now. I’m worried about how my company can survive,” she says. “Many of my clients in the service industry can barely pay their employees’ wages.” Another Chengdu resident, who prefers to remain anonymous, said the city was spending a lot of money on a sporting event, but Chengdu residents hardly benefited from it. People who, he says, are still suffering from the effects of the lockdown and some of whom would have had to go without food for days.
Fears of another COVID outbreak are raging. And the assumption that the authorities may have caused the easing prematurely so as not to endanger the table tennis World Cup. Some residents fear in their Weibo posts that participants who arrive without quarantine could bring the virus back into the city – despite all precautionary measures. “When the foreigners have left again, we might be in lockdown again,” says one of these text messages.
China between pandemic and prestige
China is the only major economy to keep its borders closed even after two years of the pandemic. As long as the zero-COVID policy lasts, there are doubts as to whether the country can host large sporting events in the future and how the enormous effort to do so can be justified. However, experts point out that it is a question of prestige for China. “Successfully organizing such major events is of great importance for China,” Shi Chenyu from Shanghai Sports University told DW. “By doing so, it can prove that China has superior organizational skills even as it battles a pandemic.”
For China, of course, prestige is also important on the record. The record world champion has been unbeaten at the Team World Championship for 20 years. The German team took silver in 2018. In any case, shortly before leaving, Dang Qiu focuses on the sporty side. In Chengdu he starts as part of a “relatively inexperienced and young team, but one with potential”. In the absence of Boll, Ovtcharov and Co., the German team has its sights set on a medal again. And then? After that, Qiu voluntarily submits to the zero-COVID mills. He travels to Macau and back to China for smaller but important individual tournaments. Quarantine included on the way there and back.