‘I play with happiness’: the table tennis star making her Olympic debut at 58

<span>Zhiying Zeng first started playing table tennis as a child before she took the sport up again during the Covid pandemic. </span><span>Photograph: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Zhiying Zeng first started playing table tennis as a child before she took the sport up again during the Covid pandemic. Photograph: Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images

Zhiying Zeng isn’t fussed about travelling to Portugal’s world-class table tennis training facility, the Mirandela Center, to prepare for Paris alongside her Olympic cohorts. “I’d prefer to train here,” she says, gesturing to her surroundings in a Santiago de Chile sports complex. The table tennis hall is in the basement, and subject to tremors from the team sports thundering around above.

Zeng trains here Monday to Friday, three hours a day. She would like to do more but she has an excuse as she contemplates her Olympic debut: she will turn 58 just before the Games start in Paris later this month. “When you’re young, nothing hurts,” she says with a smile. “Now, if I play too much I get shoulder ache.”

Zeng’s reluctance to train in Portugal comes from a love of her home for 35 years, Chile, where she can stay close to her husband and sons. Her Spanish is peppered with local slang, and she frequently jokes with the Chilean self-deprecating sense of humour.

Her Olympic dream began when she was on a professional youth team in 1970s China. It wasn’t until this May that she achieved her goal by winning a series of tournaments and finishing in the top eight in the Americas region, securing her spot in Paris.

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It’s a turn of events that even Zeng couldn’t have predicted. She retired from professional table tennis in 1986, when she was 20, and she now owns a furniture company in her home in Iquique in northern Chile.

The Covid-19 pandemic provided an unexpected path back into table tennis. To quell her restlessness during Chile’s strict lockdown, she bought a table tennis table and played alone at home for hours every day. When lockdown lifted, she entered some local tournaments for fun, effortlessly winning all of them. By 2023, she was the highest-ranked women’s player in the country and qualified for a spot on Chile’s national team.

“No one could believe it – ‘What are we going to do this with señora?’” she jokes.

As part of the Chilean women’s team, she won first place in the Sudamericanos 2023 and bronze in the 2023 Pan-American Games. In the singles, she qualified to represent Chile in Paris.

Zeng’s spectacular sporting story begins in 1966, when she was born in Guangzhou province, to an engineer father and her mother, who was a table tennis coach. Table tennis was immensely popular during her youth, especially following the table tennis diplomacy of 1971; when the United States’ table tennis team became the first official American delegation to visit Beijing since 1949. Their visit paved the way for Richard Nixon’s visit the following year.

Zeng recalls seeing ping-pong tables “everywhere” as a child: “To the Chinese, table tennis is like what football is to Brazilians.”

Zeng was coached by her mother and her skill was evident from a young age. When she was 11, Zeng was accepted to a junior elite team at a military sports school in Beijing, when Chinese professional sports were overseen by the People’s Liberation Army. After military supervision of sports ended in 1981, the school disbanded and Zeng returned to train under her mother.

By 1983, Zeng was selected for China’s national table tennis team and strived to represent the country on the biggest stage: “It’s every player’s dream to go to the Olympics”.

But her ambitions were cut short by the introduction of the “two-colour rule” in 1986, which required players to use bi-colour paddles. This allowed players to identify which surface their opponents were using, and predict the speed and spin of the ball. The change was simply too much for Zeng, who had played with single-colour paddles since she was a child. “The rule killed my game,” she says. “I felt weak, psychologically and technically.”

She parted ways with the national team and “barely played” until a Chinese coach in Chile offered her a job coaching schoolchildren in 1989. The move to a far away, foreign country appealed: “I wasn’t thinking anymore about being a professional player, but a coach.”

Zeng took the job and mingled with the small and tight-knit Chinese community in northern Chile. There, she was introduced to the blossoming import business and eventually quit coaching in favour of a career in trading Chinese goods. She became known as “Tania” to Chileans. “In Chile they can’t pronounce my name, they struggle with the Z ... but like all the Chinese that come here, we use a Chilean name,” she says. “So I [chose] Tania.”

Her adolescent son’s video game habit led her to pick up her bat again in 2002. Encouraging him to get more physically active – and put down the video games – she brought him to her local table tennis club. Her talent generated a buzz, and before long she played in a local tournament. “I beat everyone” she laughs. “After that, my son only wanted to play table tennis, and never played video games again … his personality changed too, sport gives you confidence to confront problems ... I’m very proud that I made that decision.”

She never considered trying for Chile’s national team, “I had no idea that was even possible”. She once again retired from table tennis, and focused on her business for the next 20 years, until the pandemic brought her back to the sport.

Her coach and friend, Juan Lizama, says her Olympic potential was apparent when he first saw her play in the 1990s: “She was extraordinary, the same level as today. She beat very well-known players in South America, and beat them easily,” he says.

Zeng’s game is defensive; she responds to attacks with different “effects”; slashing to slow the ball, or spinning it to disguise direction. Lizama says that Zeng is best under pressure, “she will always win the difficult points, like the last in a tied set. She’s calm.”

Lizama calls Zeng a “global example”. He adds: “She retired from the sport for 20 years, and within a year, she won in the Sudamericanos, then the Pan-Americans, and now she’s going to the Olympics.”

When Chile hosted the Pan-American Games in 2023, Zeng emerged as a national hero – the oldest athlete in the entire tournament and a medal winner. She was lovingly dubbed “Tia Tania” by fans and gained more than 10,000 Instagram followers in a week. In the crowd at one of Chile’s matches, one young fan told the press they came just to see “the table tennis grandma”.

Zeng is aware of her differences in Chile’s sporting landscape, standing out not only for her age but also for her immigrant background. Yet she insists she’s never been discriminated against: “I’ve never had problems, and everyone acknowledges my achievements.”

But there has been a sour moment in Zeng’s stint as an elite athlete: in February, she did not make Chile’s team for the world championships in South Korea, despite being the highest-ranking women’s player in the country

Zeng is perplexed as to why she was left out but shrugs it off with characteristic drive. “In sports, nothing is freely given. I’ll just keep playing,” she says.

It’s that unflinching self-belief that has brought Zeng to Paris 2024, against so many odds, and she’s happy to be an inspiration.

“At my age, you have to play with happiness, not anguish,” she says, stressing how proud she is to represent Chile. “I love this country. I didn’t reach my dream in China, and I have here. It’s important not to give up.”