The epic battle on 15 August 2008
On August 15, 2008, Singapore faced South Korea in the women’s team semi-finals of the Beijing Olympics. The stakes were high and clear. Victory meant a guaranteed silver and a shot at gold. Defeat would lead to a circuitous struggle for bronze.
After a long battle, the scoreboard in the Peking University Gymnasium read: Singapore 2, Republic of Korea 2. The contest would be decided by the last match, the fourth singles between Feng Tianwei of Singapore and Park Mi Young of South Korea. “It was a match to decide Singapore’s fate,” said Singapore team coach Liu Guodong. It was a 47-minute match which the Singapore Table Tennis Association, in its post-Olympics report to Project 0812, dubbed “the epic battle”.
Feng was not confident. “I was weak against choppers and Park was a very good chopper,” she said. “I would put my odds at 40-60, even 30-70. It was a tie-breaker so I knew I had to give my all. In my heart, I didn’t expect to win.”
But Liu had a cunning strategy in mind, taking advantage of a little-known table tennis rule called “expedited play”. In the 1936 World Championships, the first point in a match between Romania and Poland lasted an unbelievable two hours!
Since then, the table tennis authorities have introduced a time limit on games which came to be known as the “expedited play” rule. It was refined through the decades and by 2008, the rule was as such: an expedited system will kick in when a game is not completed in 10 minutes.
This system sees players serving on alternate points rather than every two points. But more importantly, every point must be completed within 12 returns. Otherwise, the point is awarded to the receiver. Once such a time limit is introduced, it will continue till the end of the match. In short, when the expedited system kicks in, it is disadvantageous to defensive players who prefer rallies.
Liu’s strategy was for Feng to get the expedited play system going as soon as possible. It would put pressure on Park to ditch her preferred defensive play. To do so, he instructed Feng, a stylish attacking player, to do what was counter intuitive to her: do not attack. “Drag out the match, keep the ball in play, be defensive,” he said. It was akin to asking a striker to be a goalkeeper in a football match. But Feng gamely obeyed.
When shots came to her backhand, she sliced it back rather than attack. “I knew there were experts watching the match who said that Singapore would sure lose because you can’t beat a chopper by simply pushing the ball back,” said Liu.
But Park did not expect such a strategy and made numerous errors. Feng won the first two games 11-7, 12-10. She was one game away from making history. Park changed her game plan in the third game, going offensive to quicken the pace and avoid the expedited guillotine. She succeeded in taking back a game 11-3. It was 2-1 and still all to play for.
The pressure was felt at the stands too. Singapore President S R Nathan and Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) president Teo Chee Hean were among those at the venue, backed by some 100 Singaporeans, including Mr Ng Ser Miang and Dr Tan Eng Liang and SNOC secretary-general Chris Chan.
For SNOC assistant secretary-general Edmund Lim, the intensity was too much to bear. He left his seat for a lounge in the stadium. “I was so nervous, I couldn’t watch,” he said. “My heart was beating too fast and I couldn’t take it.”
Feng had no such options. She had to play the fourth game, keeping in mind Liu’s exhortations to drag and defend. “I told her to persist. Even if she chopped it high, don’t smash, don’t attack, don’t take the bait,” said Liu. “I told her ‘you could still lose a game, but she couldn’t. So she would be more nervous than you’.”
This time, it worked. Rallies were long, and when the 10th minute passed, expedited play kicked in. Liu knew then that Feng would win. She began to dictate play and control the rhythm. At match point on 10-9, Park sent her serve long. “I thought to myself ‘oh god, heavens have helped me’,” said Feng with a hearty laughter.
Two minutes after expedited play was introduced, the Korean succumbed. Feng was the victor. The semi-final contest had taken 3 hour 22 minutes, the longest in Beijing’s table tennis competition. But after a 48-year wait, 202 minutes was a mere blink for Singapore. It had finally won an Olympic medal – a guaranteed silver, just like Tan Howe Liang’s in 1960.
Liu jumped up from his courtside seat, leapt over the barricades and hugged an ecstatic Feng. Cheers rang from the small but vocal group of Singapore supporters in the arena. Li Jiawei cried. “I have never cried after any victory before. But I cried because we led this team to victory and we have fulfilled Singapore’s expectations of a medal,” she said.
For the Project 0812 committee, the quiet architects behind the silver, a victory dinner was held almost immediately. It had met its key performance indicator of obtaining a medal of any colour – a shinier shade than bronze, no less – and a quintessential Beijing celebration was in order. “You can’t imagine the joy when we won that match,” said Mr Chan. “I remember I told Antony (team manager), you win this, I’m going to buy you a Peking duck dinner. So right after the semi final, that was what we did!”
Even after eight years, the man who approved the project could still savour the joy of that moment. “It was a great feeling. It was historic. After having come so close in previous eight years, it was a good feeling,” said SNOC President Teo.
*Edited excerpt from Project 0812: The Inside Story of Singapore’s Journey to Olympic Glory by Peh Shing Huei.