Fighting Communism, One Athlete at a Time

July 3, 2013 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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SHANGHAI — Li Na, the Chinese tennis star, didn’t make it all the way at Wimbledon this time: She lost out in the women’s quarterfinals on Tuesday. But she has scored a broader success: Making it in the tennis world largely on her own.

Li is a maverick, tattooed, with a sharp tongue and spunky court-side manner. She is also one of just a few Chinese sports players who have deserted the state system to go independent — and have blossomed as a result.

China spends billions of dollars every year on its Soviet-inspired sports system. Children with special aptitudes or physical attributes are plucked from their families and farmed to thousands of sports schools across the country. (The swimming star and Olympic gold medalist Ye Shiwen is said to have been chosen for her unusually large hands.)

The very best among them then move on to regional and national teams and receive state-sponsored coaching and accommodation. According to some accounts, there are 40,000 full-time athletes in China, 70 percent of whom were trained in specialized state schools.

If gold medals are anything to go by, the approach seems to work, at least in sports where excellence builds on repetition and features set routines, such as diving and gymnastics. In sports where performance calls for swift reactions — like tennis and soccer — China’s teams have typically struggled.

Li was first shepherded into the state system as a young child. But in 2008, at age 26, she and three other tennis players battled the sports administration for the right to run their own professional lives. A new pilot scheme was introduced called danfei, “flying solo,” and under it Li soared. In 2011, she became China’s first (and only) Grand Slam winner in the French Open.

Since then Li has been allowed to choose her coaches, schedules and sponsors. Instead of having to hand over to the state 65 percent of the earnings and prize money she collects, as she did before, she now reportedly passes on 12 percent at most.

The rise of Li — and other self-made athletes like the 14-year-old golf superstar Guan Tianlang — calls into question the effectiveness of state-run competitive sports training.

The system has slowly opened up over the last 15 years, according to Pei Dongguang, a professor at Beijing’s Capital Institute of Physical Education. China is increasingly sending its top athletes abroad for training or bringing in foreign coaches. In sports, as in economics, China is, in the name of improving performance, abandoning its top-down Communist methods and adopting more market-driven approaches.

Even the director of China’s tennis administration center, Sun Jinfang, has said she hopes that even more players will take “daring steps,” as Li did. Pei agrees, believing this would improve both athletes’ performance and their wellbeing.

Training at state-run facilities can be brutal, sometimes verging on abusive: Photographs of Nanning Gymnasium, in southern China, published last year showed children screaming in pain as coaches stood on their legs. Poor families often volunteer their offspring for training in the hope that will be their way out of destitution, but very few children succeed. The vast majority come away with few skills for life beyond athletics.

As China has embraced opening up and reform, individual — not collective — will is becoming the order of the day. Li is openly critical of the notion that Chinese athletes should work for the nation rather than themselves. Last week she was asked whether she felt pressure to win at Wimbledon. “Why should I carry for whole country. I mean, I’m only tennis athlete,” she answered. “I try as best as I can on court.”

This is not yet the state’s view. In 2010 officials publicly criticized the teenage Olympic speed skater Zhou Yang for thanking her parents, rather than China, after a victory. And the state-run People’s Daily recently criticized Li for her “unscrupulous willfulness.”

Willful she is. In an interview at the 2011 Australian Open Li was asked what got her through the third set in the semi-finals. “Prize money,” she said, smiling. The capitalist model is beating out Communism, one athlete at a time.

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