Timo Boll exclusive: How I deal with my fame in China
Timo Boll is big in China, and he knows it.
The seven-time European table tennis champion is more well-known in the Far East than his native Germany, to the extent where he cannot walk down the street without being stopped.
Speaking exclusively to Olympic Channel ahead of winning gold at the European Games, Boll says he enjoys the contrast between life at home in the German state of Hesse and his "second home" China.
"It's a nice switch. It's a perfect life balance, I would say, to be a star in one country and to have a quiet, normal life in your country where you live most of the time."
'Soccer player' spotlight
Boll's long-time friend and former doubles partner Ma Long told Olympic Channel in March that the level of support he receives from fans is matched by that of foreign players like Boll, Dimitrij Ovtcharov, Ai Fukuhara and Kasumi Ishikawa.
The 38-year-old veteran is more than aware of his status. "As one of the main opponents for the Chinese players, I’m quite popular there," he acknowledges.
However, he admits he would rather stay out of the focus when spotted on the streets.
"If one ends up recognising me, then there are a lot of people who are watching. It’s like soccer players and all the rest. Then it's time to leave quickly!"
"It becomes busy and stressful for me, and I don’t like that feeling to be in the middle of many people and to be in the spotlight." — Timo Boll
The German revealed that his dislike of being recognised in crowds means he spends plenty of time in his hotel whenever he travels to China.
"I'm not going outside so often in China. You already get to discover this [popularity] when you enter at the passport control, at immigration. The officers recognise you.
"There are a lot of fans who wait outside hotels for some players. I’m not the guy who likes to be in the spotlight, that’s why I normally stay in the hotel and just be a little bit separate."
He even has to rely on bodyguards and Chinese soldiers for protection at competitions.
But that's not to say he has no time for his fans. In fact, Boll says some local players could improve their relationship with the supporters.
"I’m honest and patient and also I do a lot of things for the fans.
"In this way the Chinese players can learn a little bit from me and the Western players: they care for the fans a lot."
Cultures in common
So what makes Boll feel at home when he's in China?
"They're like the Germans," he says. "They're hard-working people, and I think they're very friendly to foreigners once you know them a little bit.
"They're very open-minded and interested in other cultures. I have many Chinese friends and we work quite well, the Germans and the Chinese."
But not everything is similar — especially the food.
"They do very good vegetables, I’ve eaten much more vegetables in China than in Germany!"
Boll freely admits his Mandarin is limited.
"I started to learn a little bit of Chinese a few years ago, but I cannot communicate in a real way."
"I can say some common words like 'thank you'. I can order some food or drinks in the restaurants, but other than some table tennis words, more is not possible."
So how did pairing up with Ma Long go?
"We have a good relationship, Ma Long and I. It was fun to play with him.
"Somehow we understood each other quite well, especially table tennis-wise.
"We knew exactly what to play, and how to play for our partner.
"Unfortunately in the World Championships we always hit the other Chinese pairs quite early, so we lost closely both times."
Challenging the Chinese
Why China's dominance in table tennis is unmatched at the Olympics
After nearly two decades in table tennis, Boll continues to be at the top of his game.
In March 2018, he became the sport's oldest world number one.
Boll has led Germany's three-man squad to the semi-finals of the team event at the last three Olympics, earning a silver and two bronze medals.
And as he readily points out, he's been around long enough to have played against "four or five generations" of Chinese players.
"The style has changed over the years but I can still compete," he insists.
"Every time when I play in China, that's the biggest motivation for me. To go there and play against the young guys."
Germany's table tennis team take bronze
Germany's table tennis team take bronzeGermany's table tennis team wins bronze again in Rio 2016.
The table tennis competitions at the second European Games in Minsk acted as a qualifying event for Tokyo 2020, which will be Boll's sixth Olympic Games.
Boll, who was Germany's flag-bearer at the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, was the top seed in Minsk, and although he played down his chances, eventually lived up to his top billing by winning gold.
"I don’t feel like the favourite," he had said. "Everybody is very motivated to qualify for the Olympic Games and everyone will be well-prepared.
"The levels of the players are becoming more equal or closer together, there won’t be easy games from the first round on."
Ultimately, the German saw off Denmark's Jonathan Groth in the final to add yet another accolade to his list of achievements.