China has been spending tens of billions on international media expansion and advertising in the west. It is all about showcasing its point of view and enhancing its image. But there is some publicity money cannot buy – not even the vast amounts Beijing pours into its state sport system to produce Olympic champions. We are of course talking about the recognition generated by Li Na’s feat in becoming the first Chinese to win a grand slam tennis title in the French Open tournament.
What sets Li apart is that she is not a product of the system, having long since become her own woman. As such, she has become a role model to a new generation of mainlanders and an ambassador for her country abroad. China is yet to produce anyone comparable in the ego cauldron of the top international tennis circuit, where champions are measured in the media glare by grace, good humour and sportsmanship in both victory and defeat, endearing qualities that have served Li well in her gritty climb to the top. Her independence and outspokenness is credited with getting her to where she is now. Li turned her back on the system, won the right for her and other players to keep more of their prize money and called for other athletes to be allowed to pursue their careers free of strict government controls.
Some credit must be due to sports officials for liberating them. But it remains to be seen whether they have absorbed the lesson of Li Na’s success – that there are cheaper ways of projecting a national image than spending billions on an elitist production line, and that there is nothing to fear from allowing sportspeople more freedom. Indeed, there is intense debate in China over whether it is time to reform the system. By going it alone successfully, Li Na has done much more to enhance the national image. It is time for China to set its athletes free and allow them to stand on their own feet. The savings on a state sports system would be better spent on promoting the fitness of the general population and nurturing even more potential champions.