Shanghai (AFP) - The former head coach of China's all-conquering table tennis team has denied knowing three top Chinese players would stage a no-show at a major tournament in protest at his removal.
Highly respected Liu Guoliang, a former Grand Slam champion who lost his job last week in a restructuring of Chinese table tennis, apologised to fans on the players' behalf.
But the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has threatened to punish the star-studded China team for the actions of the players, who have also said sorry.
The sport's three top-ranked men's players -- number one Ma Long, Fan Zhendong and Xu Xin -- failed to appear for their second-round singles matches at the prestigious ITTF World Tour Platinum China Open in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Friday.
Two Chinese coaches also failed to show up and the ITTF consequently said it was taking the matter "extremely seriously", while the furore has been a talking point in table tennis-mad China for several days.
Now Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA) vice-president, Liu issued a heartfelt statement on social media.
Writing on his Twitter-like Weibo account, Liu, 41, broke his public silence to say that he "knew nothing of them dropping out of the matches in advance".
But he added: "These athletes and coaches are all team members that I had coached before... I hereby bow and apologise to all (table tennis) fans on their behalf!
"This has also stirred public opinion, which has put me on edge.
"I would never impede the development of the reforms (of the CTTA) for the sake of my own head coach position and I will devote my efforts to actively pushing forward table tennis reform."