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Shuttling Between Associations
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When former Chinese World No 1 badminton player Zhou Mi announced last week that she would be competing for Hong Kong, she could be forgiven for expecting a hostile reaction.

Poor form, injuries and heated competition for places had dimmed Zhou's prospects of playing international badminton for China again, so a move to another federation was a tempting prospect for a player who felt she still had plenty to give.

"I came across Hong Kong's recruitment announcement on the Internet accidentally. So I filled in a form and submitted the application. I did not think I could join the team so quickly and smoothly," said Zhou, 27.

"Yes, the Netherlands and Malaysia showed interest in me last year. But if I win matches as a representative of other countries, the feeling would be different. So I chose to join the Hong Kong team. That means I am still Chinese," Zhou said.

To Zhou's surprise, China's badminton authorities backed her decision.

"I support her move," said Li Yongbo, head coach of the national team.

This was a sharp contrast to last summer, when rumours of Zhou switching to Malaysia drew an angry response from Li.

"Zhou should know who developed her into a top player," he said at the time. "She should know the seriousness of her decision. If she chooses another nationality, it is harming national interests."

Important in Li's mind was that Zhou was playing for Hong Kong.

"Zhou used to be one of the world's top players and boasted high prestige. It is understandable that Malaysia and Netherlands asked her to join them. Now, she's made a final decision to be a member of the Hong Kong association.

"They are all Chinese players. It doesn't make a difference whether they play in the mainland or in Hong Kong."

Li's attitude has changed a lot since 2000, when ace player Wang Chen announced her decision to play for Hong Kong amid reports of a major falling out between the two. 

Bad feeling still lingered in 2005, when Wang crashed out in the semifinals of the National Championships and claimed she was being unfairly treated by match officials.

"How can I beat 10 referees on the court? I know some people do not want me to be the champion. That is because I defeated national team players," Wang said after the Games.

The biggest nationality row in Chinese sport broke out at the Asian Games in 1994, when Chinese-born table tennis player He Zhili won gold for Japan.

He Zhili was world champion for China in 1987, but after marrying a Japanese man in 1992 she switched nationality.

She beat Chinese player Deng Yaping in the final, but her on court behaviour horrified Chinese fans, who saw her switch as a betrayal. According to reports, she received threats in Japan warning her not to return to China.

Zhou said that her main motivation for moving was to rediscover her enjoyment for the sport.

"Over the past few years I've competed for gold medals. Now, after experiencing so many ups and downs, I'm finding out how fun badminton is. I am enjoying the sport right now," she said.

A prolific Zhou was the leader of the national women's team and has a collection of titles under her belt, covering national and international competitions.

But her best result at a World Championships was second place in 2003, and at the Athens Olympics in 2004 she could only claim bronze. After Athens she was replaced as Number 1 by emerging idol Xie Xingfang and veteran Zhang Ning.

Strong opponents

Zhou's move is part of Hong Kong's efforts to attract excellent persons from the mainland.

According to the plan, Hong Kong will offer citizenship to 1,000 outstanding people from different fields every year. Zhou is the first sportsperson.

But, with memories still fresh of their defeat to Hong Kong's Yip Pui Yin and Wang Chen at the Doha Asian Games, China's top duo Xie and Zhang know they face a challenge to keep their No 1 slot.

Zhou is currently ineligible for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, but this could soon change: Hong Kong coach Chan Chi Choi said Zhou will start amassing points for Olympic qualification as soon as possible.

But national head coach Li shrugged off the possibility of Hong Kong challenging for gold in the women's singles in 2008. "She's training with the Hong Kong team but cannot represent Hong Kong yet," Li said. "Her injuries are too much of a problem for her to be a threat."

If she can get fit, Zhou has the skills to beat World No 1 Xie and No 2 Zhang.

Zhou has an almost 50-50 record against Zhang, though Zhang did claim crucial victories in the Athens Olympics semi-final and the 2005 Masters Cup final.

But Zhou has a better record against Xie, including a semis win at the 2005 Masters Cup and a series of victories at Open tournaments.

Her father Zhou Tong revealed she still dreams of becoming Olympic or World champion.

"She is 27 and still able to achieve something. She always thinks she is only one step away from the top of the podium at the World Championships or the Olympics. This time, she chose Hong Kong and has given herself one more chance. As her parents, we stand by her."

(China Daily January 10, 2007)

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