Will Victory Spur Athletic Reform in China?

BEIJING — Li Na’s victory in the French Open on Saturday thrilled China, but some observers wondered whether the country’s sports machine would allow many other athletes to follow her unorthodox career path.

Li, 29, became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title, defeating the Italian Francesca Schiavone, 6-4, 7-6 (0). In doing so, she joined a handful of Chinese athletes who have won international sporting fame, such as the basketball star Yao Ming and the Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang.

An estimated 116 million Chinese watched her victory on television, and it triggered a patriotic outburst in the country’s state-controlled media. One editorial called it “the most glorious achievement of 30-plus years of Chinese sports.” Her victory was front-page news in most Chinese newspapers Sunday, including the Communist Party’s People’s Daily.

Most noted that Li achieved success after breaking free of China’s sports machine, which has turned the country into a Olympic powerhouse. She left her parents to train in a government-run sports school at an early age but was forced to play so much tennis that by 20 she was burned out and quit. After 18 months at university, she decided she missed tennis and returned to play.

But it was not until three years ago, when she was the relatively advanced age of 26, that she began to achieve significant success. That was when the government official in charge of tennis offered several top players the opportunity to leave the national team. They could set their schedules, choose their coaches and retain most of their winnings. In the past, most went to the government.

Li began to climb in the rankings, breaking into the top 10 last year, and earlier this year became the first Chinese player to compete in a Grand Slam final, losing the Australian Open to Kim Clijsters.

Terry Rhoads, managing director of the Shanghai-based sports marketing firm Zou Marketing Ltd., said the current system needed an overhaul. Currently, most Chinese athletic victories on the international level come in relatively marginal sports like badminton and table tennis, or judged sports that require rote training, like diving or gymnastics. But winning at globally popular sports like soccer or basketball requires Chinese athletes to compete against some of the world’s best athletes.

“China has vast untapped potential,” Rhoads said. “But the current system is holding them back.”

If reform happens, it could be the biggest effect of Li’s victory, said Maggie Rauch, who runs the Web site chinasportstoday.com, since Li’s age makes it unlikely she will have a long career ahead of her.

“It could be that pushing a reform of the system is what this victory means,” Rauch said.

But some doubt that Li’s victory will result in any reform. Pei Dongguang, a professor at Beijing’s Capital Institute of Sports, said the sports administration and the government benefited too much from the current system to allow too many athletes their freedom.

“The government needs sports for nationalism,” Pei said. “It wants to keep control of it so it can claim it was responsible for the victory.”

The New York Times

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