HAVING spent the last three weeks in China, Paul Drinkhall is under no illusions about the strength of competition he will face in this summer's Olympic table tennis tournament.
But while the Loftus-based Olympian will be one of the lowest-ranked competitors in London, he remains confident of springing a few surprises.
Drinkhall has just returned from a Chinese training camp in which Britain's Olympic squad completed a punishing schedule that saw them train for at least six hours a day.
Tough going? Undoubtedly. But the regime is par for the course for China's domestic players, many of whom devote themselves to table tennis from as young as eight.
The same is true of South Korea, and it is hardly a coincidence that 14 of the world's top 20 players hail from one of the two Asian nations.
The two countries will be expected to dominate the Olympic competition in the Excel Arena, but Drinkhall, who is currently number 102 in the world rankings, is not perturbed by the scale of the
challenge awaiting him.
"I'll certainly be looking to challenge them," said the North-Easterner. "As British players, we can't just sit back and say, 'They're great players - we're going to lose to them'.
"I've seen that a lot in table tennis. Some of the European players go to a major competition, win their first-round game, get drawn against a Chinese player in the next round, and then effectively
give up."You see them walking round in the practice hall and want to say, 'Well why don't you just go home then?' There's no point in them being there."My attitude is that when you go onto the
table at the start, you're both equal. I've trained as much as they have, so there's no reason why I can't beat them. They might be a lot better than you, but upsets happen all the time. And if you
don't try, you're not going to win."
Nevertheless, Drinkhall admits that social differences make it difficult for British table tennis players to compete with some of their Asian rivals.
"When we were over there, there were some eight-year-old boys and girls who were already playing six hours of table tennis a day, six days a week," he said. "They're doing that at eight years old,
and you see them when they're ten and their level is just insane.
"That's when people are thinking about starting over here, so that's why we're always chasing them.
"We've just got to figure out smarter ways of training because we can't do what they do. You can't pull an eight-year-old out of school to play table tennis, but hopefully the Olympic experience
will help kids of that age take an interest in the sport."
Having completed his European commitments with his Italian club side Sterilgarda, Drinkhall will be based in Sheffield in the build-up to the Olympics.
He will attend a holding camp in Loughborough before entering the Olympic village, and could be drawn to compete on the very first morning of the Games.
"It's getting really close now and it's getting really exciting," he said. "We go to get all our Olympic kit soon, and I think that's when it'll really hit home.
"It's going to be important to strike a balance between enjoying the whole Olympic experience and also making sure we're totally focused on the matches when we're playing.
"There's an individual and a team tournament, and as a squad, there's no reason why we can't give a really good account of ourselves in both."