S. Korean pro table tennis players here for champs

When four young South Korean table tennis players walked into Dunedin’s Edgar Centre yesterday and started smashing high-speed ping-pong balls across every square inch of court, most of the other players in the room either fumbled their shots, or just stopped and stared.

Huicheol Bae, Inhyeok Choi, Yechan Yang and Gihun Lee are used to it.

They are well recognised, especially in Asia, because they are ranked among the top 50 professional table tennis players in South Korea.

They are in Dunedin to compete as representatives of the South Korean Army table tennis team this weekend, to compete in the South Island Individual and Para Championships at the Edgar Centre.

Through translator Sangyong Park, of Christchurch, the four said they were in New Zealand as part of a cultural exchange with the Canterbury Table Tennis Association.

"They heard there was going to be this big tournament while they were here, so they just came."

Because of their reputation, they felt a "responsibility" to perform well in the tournament, they said.

Mr Park said many children grew up in South Korea wanting to become professional table tennis players, like New Zealand children grew up wanting to be All Blacks, so they started training young in the hope they would be famous.

The quartet were already professional table tennis players in their teens, but they were not exempt from having to do compulsory military service for 18 months.

South Korean Army table tennis team representatives (from left) Yechan Yang, 22, Gihun Lee, 22,...
South Korean Army table tennis team representatives (from left) Yechan Yang, 22, Gihun Lee, 22, Inhyeok Choi, 23, and Huicheol Bae, 24, warm up for the South Island Individual and Para Table Tennis Championships at the Edgar Centre yesterday. Photos: Gerard O'Brien
"The only way to get out of it is to win a gold medal at the Olympics."

He said they were pleased to be here to play in New Zealand because if they were not here, they would be standing guard in a tower with a machine gun, somewhere along the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

"This is good."

Once they had finished their 18-month service, they would return to playing professional table tennis, he said.

The group head back to South Korea on Monday.

Table Tennis Otago Association president Ben Duffy said the men were the top four seeds for the open men’s singles at this weekend’s competition.

"They’re world-class players."

He recommended Dunedin residents come along to watch them play because opportunities to see players of this calibre were rare in the South.