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September 2, 2009

Pingpong lovers: China allows champ a girlfriend

BEIJING (AP) — As the reigning table tennis world champion with two Olympic silver medals under his belt, China's Wang Hao almost had it all — except a girlfriend.

The 25-year-old was banned from dating until recently, when national team officials permitted his relationship with former national teammate, 23-year-old Peng Luyang, the government-owned China Daily reported Wednesday.

"Both of them are old enough and it's normal," the newspaper quoted Peng's coach Qiao Yunping as saying.

Strict control of athletes' personal lives is common in China's rigid state-run sporting system, which grooms young hopefuls in specialized sports schools around the country to become gold medalists, providing them with intensive training and free food, clothes and shelter.

Under the watchful eye of team officials, star athletes are often banned from dating or marrying until a certain age, restricted in endorsement contracts and sometimes have a large percentage of their winnings taken away.

Athletes who date without permission risk being punished. In 2004, Wang started dating another fellow national team player, Fan Ying, and officials kicked Fan off the national team. Media reports said Wang avoided punishment at the time because his world ranking was much higher than Fan's.

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