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Libmonster ID: ZA-32
Author(s) of the publication: Chloe Arnold

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He may be the youngest member of the four-boy, four-girl Ping-Pong team from South Africa, but Christopher Lau, 11, has more than four years of experience behind him.

Lau has been a master of Ping-Pong since he was 7, when his father, also a keen player, gave him a table for his birthday. Every day Lau Junior practiced his strokes, while his friends climbed trees and chased cats.

The hard work paid off. Within weeks, he was snapped up by his local team. Within months, he was picking up medals all over the country. Two years ago, aged 9, he won the South African championships in the under-12 age group.

Although most of the players in the World Youth Games under-14 competition, which begins Saturday, will be older than Lau, they won't necessarily be wiser.

Lau says he has had plenty of luck, since he arrived in Moscow. "We get free McDonalds, MTV and as much Coca-Cola as we can drink," he beamed. "And it's even sunnier than summer in Johannesburg."

As with many of the participants in the table tennis championships, Lau's roots lie in the Orient ? five eighths of the Brazilian team are the grandchildren of Japanese immigrants. Both of Lau's parents are Chinese ? his father left China to study at Johannesburg University, his mother was born in South Africa. His older brother, too, plays for South Africa.

"He beats me all the time, but he just missed getting onto the youth games team because he was too old for his age group," Lau said.

All the same, Lau doesn't believe it is his Chinese blood that makes him a champion. "The training is more important than where your parents come from," he said.

But he admitted that his opponents are often intimidated by his appearance and slight frame. "When they see me for the first time, they think I must be very, very good, because I'm Chinese," he said. "Sometimes they are extremely afraid of me."

In South Africa, Lau trains for 2 1/2 hours a day, three times a week. He isn't on a special diet, although he says he has to watch what he drinks. "You shouldn't drink too much before a game, otherwise you can't move properly," he said. "The liquid sits in your stomach and slows you down."

With just four days of preparation after arriving in Moscow, Lau said he planned to spend most of his time in the table tennis training hall at the giant Luzhniki stadium, where most of the events in the Youth Games are to take place." Russian tables tend to be much faster than our tables at home," he said. "I hope I can adapt to the conditions before Saturday."

Lau said he wasn't going to think about the finals. "If I had to put a bet on it, I think China or Sweden will come out with the gold," he said. For Lau, the most important part about coming to Moscow is to represent his country in the first ever World Youth Games.

"The best thing is knowing that I will go down in the books because I came to Moscow for the very first junior olympics. Even if I don't win, I'll always be able to remember that."

Although he spends most of his time perfecting his backhand spins, Lau left the cozy confines of the Olympic Village on Wednesday to take in a tour of the city. He enjoyed Red Square but was mystified by the dead man in a suit underneath a glass table. "They must have liked him a lot to build a whole house around him," he said. "I don't know who he was, but he must have been very important. Maybe he was the best table tennis player in Russia."

Team coach Clement Mayer observed that six years ago, Lau wouldn't have been allowed to come to Moscow to play table tennis at the World Youth Games.

Mayer himself was a junior champion in South Africa but he was barred from every international tournament by sanctions against apartheid.

"Sadly, I could never play abroad, because of the sports boycott," said Mayer. "These kids don't realize how lucky they are."



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