Table tennis final sees China’s Ding Ning penalized for unauthorized usage of a towel

China's Ding Ning lost the women's table tennis final to countrywoman Li Xiaoxia Wednesday, partly because she picked the wrong time to use her towel. Li beat Ding 11-8, 14-12, 8-11, 11-6, 11-4, but Ding picked up two odd penalties in the crucial fourth game. Trailing 2-6, Ding then had a point deducted by Italian referee Paola Bongelli for tossing the ball at an angle on her serve (it's supposed to go straight up). She then got angry and went and grabbed her towel, and was docked another point for doing so, as towel breaks are only allowed every six points. Ding followed British author Douglas Adams' advice of always knowing where one's towel is, but she might have been better off taking another lesson from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and electing not to panic.

For the 24-year-old Ding, silver is a great disappointment. She entered this tournament as the world's top-ranked female player and had beaten the 22-year-old Li so consistently (including in last year's world championship final) that Li had been called "Ms. No. 2" in China. Naturally, Ding was unhappy, and she cited the officiating and the penalties as factors in the loss:

"I didn't do very well," she said. "I had an obstacle today, not only from the opponent but from the umpire."

Ding may or may not have a point there. The towel penalty appears standard and not terribly debatable, but the angled-serve one (which was called on her twice in the match), received some criticism from table tennis federation president Adham Sharara:

"The umpire felt her serve was thrown back too far," said Adham Sharara, the president of the International Table Tennis Federation, who put his arm around Ding to comfort her and promised she could win in four years in Rio de Janeiro.

"It is a judgment call," Sharara said. "The umpire allows some sort of tolerance. She (Ding) felt the umpire was too strict. This happens sometimes. Umpires can be very strict and the players should adapt. When two players from the same country play each other, the umpire should be more lenient. If I were the umpire, I would maybe be a little more flexible."

However, it's worth pointing out that Ding only lost three points to penalties in the whole match. While the two in the fourth game came at a terrible time and may have killed any hope of a comeback, she was already behind substantially at that point and may not have pulled out the victory even without those lost points. The most awkward part's still to come, though, as Ding and Li together will play together with Guo Yue in the women's team competition (which involves four singles matches and a doubles match in each matchup) starting Friday. They'll be heavily favoured, given the performances of both Li and Ding at the worlds and at these Olympics and China's historic dominance; 22 of the 26 gold medals in table tennis since 1988 have been won by Chinese athletes, and the ITTF changed the rules for 2012 to permit only two athletes per country in the singles events, guaranteeing that someone else would win bronze. Still, Ding and Li will have to go from adversaries to teammates very quickly. Perhaps Li can give Ding some helpful pointers on when to use a towel?

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