RIO DE JANEIRO — Ni Xialian helped the Chinese team win a gold medal at the world championships of table tennis in 1983. But even that was not enough to convince her coaches that she could forge a career alongside the best players in her country. So she left.
Ni was a 7-year-old schoolgirl in Shanghai when she first fell in love with the game. Last week, at age 53, she competed in her third Olympics, wearing for a third time the uniform of Luxembourg, the nation she adopted as her home in 1991. In a sport that rewards the skill of subtle anticipation, her unconventional move 25 years ago has proved prescient.
Back then, there was only a trickling migration of players from China to certain countries in Europe. But that movement grew, and today it has produced a full-fledged, far-flung diaspora of athletes on six continents that has reshaped the landscape of the sport.