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An under the table love affair?
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Rumors of a love affair between two-time Olympic table tennis women's singles champion Zhang Yining and teammate Chen Qi have been doing the rounds on the Internet, stunning fans and coaches of the sport's governing body.

163.com reported on Tuesday that Zhang, the undisputed world No 1 women's paddler for the past eight years, has been in love with Chen for a year, although Zhang has said in interviews she is single.

The national team manager, Huang Biao, denied a love affair was going on between the pair.

"Our players and coaches are very clear there is no such kind of love affair between the two at all," Huang said. "Some media are trying to 'expose' them but all they have done has hurt the players and caused a negative effect among the national team."

Zhang, 26, is expected to do well in London 2012, following the example of Wang Nan, a multiple world and Olympic champion, who won the women's team title and singles silver at the Beijing Games, aged 30.

"Zhang is still young and in form and she is quite likely to play in the 2012 London Olympics," coach Xiao Zhan said

Chen, 24, won the men's doubles gold four years ago in Athens but has been a backup for the more-experienced trio of Ma Lin, Wang Hao and Wang Liqin, as the doubles event was canceled at the Beijing Olympics.

"If Ma Lin and Wang Liqin do not play in London, Chen will be the favorite to do so," Xiao said.

China's table tennis officials prohibit national players from having love affairs with members of the same team - though this is an unwritten law.

Previously, some players have sacrificed their career to maintain their relationships, while others have left their loved ones.

Men's head coach Liu Guoliang was on the same national youth team as player Wang Jin when she was 16, but after falling in love with Liu she had to leave for a career in Japan.

"It was made very clear that it was impossible to continue our relationship if we were on the same team," Wang said. "I hoped he would have a successful career on the national team so I left for Japan."

Hard-working Liu became the leader of the national team, winning a bunch of world and Olympic titles and was then appointed head coach of the men's team after retirement in 2002. Four year later, the two got married.

Just before the Athens Olympic Games, China expelled four table-tennis players, including Bai Yang, 19, reportedly the girlfriend of men's world No 1 Ma Lin; and 17-year-old Fan Ying, who went out with the then newly-crowned ITTF pro tour finals winner Wang Hao. World No 9 Li Nan, 21, and her boyfriend Hou Yingchao, 21, were both dismissed.

The harsh punishment meted out to the players triggered a debate on whether Chinese athletes should have romances with their teammates.

(China Daily September 5, 2008)

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