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It was hardly a disgrace for Britain’s Josh Stacey to lose heavily to Ma Lin, a kingpin of Paralympic table tennis with his four golds across three Games. But it was less the pedigree of this Chinese-born player, now representing Australia, that impressed than his barely believable back-story. For here is an athlete who has come to dominate his category despite having his arm eaten by a bear.
Ma was just five when, on a visit to his local zoo in south-eastern China, a reacquaintance with the brown bear he had befriended went hideously wrong. The animal attacked him without warning, biting clean through his right arm between the elbow and the shoulder and leaving nothing except a few tendons.
He lost so much blood that he almost died on the spot, and yet in the 26 years since his life was changed immeasurably, he has spared the bear from blame.
“I thought he was my friend, because I used to go to the zoo every week to feed him,” Ma told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. “So, I just decided to reach out and pat him, but I guess he was not in a good mood that day.”
Ma, who remained conscious as his terrible injuries became clear, reflected: “I think I was in a bit of shock. But I didn’t cry – not once.”
His friend, a six-year-old who had come with him to the zoo, screamed at his parents for help, while a group of tourists who witnessed the attack sent him to hospital in a taxi, knowing there would not be enough time to wait for an ambulance. Almost all the flesh and bone in his lower arm was gone.
His life was saved, but surgeons were forced to amputate his arm at the shoulder, an operation from which he awoke with only one question. “I just wanted to know if I would still be able to get a girlfriend when I was older,” he said. They said, ‘of course’, so I was happy.”
While Ma had intended to develop his expertise as a classical pianist, the loss of an arm closed off avenue but opened another. Inspired by China’s clean sweep of table tennis golds at the Atlanta Olympics, he resolved to forge his own reputation in the sport that has become the country’s obsession.
A first Paralympic gold would follow in Beijing, two more in London, and a fourth in Rio. But ahead of Tokyo, Ma, with his two female compatriots, Lei Lina and Yang Qian, dramatically switched national allegiance Down Under, in what has been described within the Australian team as a “lifestyle decision”.
Under the Australian flag, he was no less fearsome an adversary here, dispatching Stacey 3-0. “His experience was a huge factor,” the Welshman said.
Ma, who intends to continue until the Brisbane Olympics in 2032, when he will be 43, has plenty more chapters still to script in his survival tale. From unspeakable horror at the zoo to table tennis glory: even for the Paralympics, it is a story never before told.