Yao Ming, Basketball and National Honor in China: World View

Yao Ming is China's favorite basketball-playing son, but it would be difficult to find him joining a lively pick-up game on the well-known basketball courts in Shanghai's Xujiahui Park. The Chinese national basketball team prefers its players to play inside its gyms. While Yao also played for the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets, he abided by the protective traditions of China's vast national sports bureaucracy when he was in China.

On July 20, 2011, Yao will likely announce his retirement from basketball at a press conference in Shanghai, his home town. It’s a sports tragedy of sorts: His career in the NBA was cut short by nonstop, rigorous physical demands that left him with severe injuries, especially in his feet. After his intense NBA season, Yao couldn't rest but rather had to continue to fulfill his obligations to play for the Chinese national team.

For Yao, and the many passionate Chinese sports fans who followed his career, basketball was more about national honor than fun, even when he was playing in the NBA. Now, with his early retirement, there seems to be a giant national re-think on Yao's career. Could he have had more long-term success if he thought more of his individual career –- and of fun -- than of national honor?

For China’s sports bureaucracy, and an older generation of Chinese sports fans, this re-think is unthinkable. For decades, Chinese athletes' success on the international stage was proof of China's greatness. Today, the bureaucracy that supported and promoted Chinese athletic success is in place, but the national yearning for that success seems to be yielding to a more individualistic culture.

China’s growing global prestige has also convinced some Chinese commentators that international competition just doesn’t matter like it used to. “Gold medals, especially those obtained in international competition, indeed represent a nation’s power,” wrote the private, Guangzhou-based New Express Daily on July 13. “But the same image can be obtained by different methods and means. The strength of China is obvious to all. As a great power, China doesn't need a set number of gold medals to prove herself anymore.”

Li Na, the “free agent” tennis professional who freed herself from playing for the Chinese national tennis team and won the 2011 French Open, is one example of this more relaxed national sports culture. Chinese netizens, especially those active on the Sina Weibo microblog, were quick to cite her individualism and, more importantly, her distance from the national sports infrastructure, which gave Li Na her start. She need not credit China's sports bureaucracy, they said, for her recent success. Wrote Sina Weibo user Wang Yan:

Someone said that because she is a self-employed professional player who does not belong to the national system, she doesn't need to show her gratitude to the country. This statement is only half right. I think self-employed players aren’t the only ones who shouldn’t have to thank their country, but also prizewinners trained by the national system should never thank their country for they are "lucky victims."

American athletes who have the means to train in private clubs and hire personal trainers can pay lip service to being grateful to the United States when they win international competitions. But for most Chinese athletes -– barring a few notable, mostly wealthy, exceptions -- the national system is still the only route to athletic success. China, therefore, expects gratitude from its athletes. And when that gratitude isn’t shown, the backlash can be harsh.

In 2010, Zhou Yang, an 18-year-old Chinese speed skater, won the gold medal in the women’s 1500 meter short-track race at the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Afterward, she said in an interview to Chinese television that her victory might serve to bring her parents a better life. Shortly after her win, government leaders in her hometown of Changchun City awarded Zhou’s parents with a two-bedroom apartment.

Several weeks later, Yu Zaiqing, deputy director of the Chinese General Administration of Sport and vice chairman of the International Olympic Committee, made comments that many believed were pointed at Zhou:

Some athletes did not express all their appreciation after winning a gold medal. There is nothing wrong with expressing appreciation for one's parents, but they should put the country in front of their parents because the country invested a lot for their sport career.

There is a division of Chinese sports fans –- some quite powerful -- who also expect fealty from Chinese athletes. One of them is Hu Xijin, editor of the wildly popular, nationalist Global Times newspaper. A recent Global Times editorial echoed Hu’s Sina tweets regarding Yao Ming’s retirement:

During his career, Yao has also been questioned about his loyalty to his country, such as when his daughter obtained US citizenship after her birth in 2010. But his decision to represent China in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, after an NBA season, at the risk of ruining his career due to worsening injuries, won him more respect among Chinese fans.

Many Chinese sports fans have challenged this kind of thinking, especially those who microblog on Sina Weibo. The patriotic fervor that accompanied Yao’s fruitless 2008 attempt for Olympic gold in basketball appears to have been replaced by pointed recriminations of the Chinese sports bureaucracy. Liu Liansheng, a senior editor at China World Book, wrote:

After Yao Ming was selected by the [NBA’s] Houston Rockets, [his] Shanghai team and the Basketball Association announced their support for releasing him, all the while secretly setting up layers of obstacles to that release. Just the financial penalty surpassed the value of Yao Ming's rookie contract. Moreover, they stipulated that Yao Ming should be on call for the national team. In fact that is one of the reasons why Yao Ming was injured continuously.

Meanwhile, among a certain segment on the Sina microblog, there is a slow, dawning realization that –- despite being China’s best basketball hope –- Yao’s individual talent was squandered for ends that had nothing to do with Chinese national, or NBA, glory. Global People magazine's official Sina Weibo account implied that China’s sports bureaucrats had other interests when they agreed to send Yao abroad:

At the peak of [Yao’s] career, the state invested abundant capital, invited foreign coaches…but there was no breakthrough in the Olympic Games and they [the national men’s basketball team] suffered a crushing defeat in the World Championships...Like Li Na in women’s tennis, Yao is a person whose individual achievement is higher than the national achievement. Can we say that Yao Ming is the fig leaf created by the Chinese Men's Basketball Team?

From the perspective of the national team, and its fans, Yao Ming was and is irreplaceable. There are other Chinese NBA players, but none of them come close to matching the stature, the character and the skills of the soft-spoken giant from Shanghai. And this raises uncomfortable questions, such as the one suggested by Sina user Li Weizhi: “We might think over just why the American Team can rule the world without Jordan, yet [China] might very well decline to second-class without Yao Ming on the team.”

Meanwhile, down at Xujiahui Park in Shanghai, Chinese teenagers seem like NBA wannabes as they crash into each other between and during shots, roughly emulating the speedy, danger-defying American basketball guards and forwards who are beloved in China. Yet for all of the Kobe Bryant and LeBron James imitators spinning, jumping, and colliding –- and there are many -– there’s rarely anyone imitating the decidedly less flashy but effortless style of Yao Ming. Of course, few Chinese teenage boys are over seven feet tall, but there’s also something else at play, I think: Simply, it’s more fun to copy players who learned to play basketball in urban American parks, than a player who drilled free-throws for hours in a Chinese government gym. At least that’s the message I take away when, this week, I spotted Kobe Bryant jerseys, a LeBron James jersey, and even an Allan Iverson jersey. I saw, however, zero Yao Ming jerseys on what should be his home court.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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