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The China Syndrome
Alexander Wolff
October 16, 1995
Chinese athletes and coaches are increasingly subject to the ills and temptations that afflict sports in the West
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October 16, 1995

The China Syndrome

Chinese athletes and coaches are increasingly subject to the ills and temptations that afflict sports in the West

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Believing his mother to be the goddess of deer, Ma recently took his new runners on a pilgrimage to her grave. That detail is said to be in a forthcoming book about Ma that may never be published, for its author isn't sure whether the authorities consider Ma worthy of canonization or of condemnation. China's take on this hybrid of Bobby Knight, Bela Karolyi and Timothy Leary is much like the country's attitude toward its new, ill-distributed prosperity: The Chinese are happy to claim the successes, but they are a little embarrassed by how these advances have come about.

"He uses dirty words," says Huang Zhihong, the former world champion in the women's shot put. "His girls have to do laundry for him and take food to him. But when they begin to know the world, they don't listen to him anymore. Fifteen years ago you could coach like this, because everyone was scared of coaches and of politics. But not now. Now if you don't like the coach, you can go someplace else."

Today the game that helped open up China during the Nixon era is the poor sister of Chinese sports. The World Table Tennis Championships, held in Tianjin in May, were swept by the home team, but they attracted so little corporate sponsorship that they rang up a huge loss. Meanwhile China is scarcely different from any other country outside the U.S. in its fervor for soccer. This season the 24 teams in China's two-year-old, IMG-affiliated pro league expect to draw 1.5 million fans. Recent visits by the European clubs Arsenal, A.C. Milan and Sampdoria drew sellout crowds, and in Shanghai last season local fans actually pelted followers of the visiting Chengdu club with bottles, albeit plastic ones. Because of the government's decree last spring that Saturday would join Sunday as a day off for all Chinese workers, soccer is likely to attract still more fans and young players.

Guo An, the Beijing team, is the current Chinese league leader. Coach Jin Zhiyang, a compact man of expressionless intensity, sits in his office next to the Workers' Stadium wearing Nike shoes, Nike warmup pants and a Nike polo shirt. Only his watch, a visitor remarks, isn't beswooshed. "Does Nike make a watch?" Jin asks, in all seriousness, lest he miss out on something.

Jin is upset: Nike is tardy in delivering equipment included in its sponsorship agreement, and he must make do with a single set of uniforms when, he says, he has been promised five sets. But he knows there's a latter-day solution to this latter-day problem. "We're talking with Reebok right now," he says.

Several offices away, in a garret with a desk and a bed, Yang Qun works and lives. He is Guo An's vice general manager, an energetic, chain-smoking young man who has the oily charm of a car salesman. He has learned quickly what it has taken spendthrift Western sports barons many painful years to discover: Money alone can't buy titles. Guo An has no foreign players, even though league rules permit five imports per club. "We believe we can beat any other team without them," Yang says. "So why bother?" And while a team in Guangzhou just spent $137,500 in transfer fees to buy two Chinese players, Yang isn't concerned. "They're doing very well, but they're not Number 1," he says. "We are!"

This isn't to say Guo An isn't above buying a player or two. Beijing's goalkeeper was lured there from a team in Hebei.

Yang shrugs. "Sixty years ago the most famous physicist, Einstein, was stolen by the U.S.," he says.

To curb China's breathtaking population growth, the state has enforced a strict single-child policy since 1981. With both parents lavishing attention and resources on their only offspring, the kid is likely to become a little terror with a dynastic sense of entitlement. This phenomenon is so widespread that it has a name: the Little Emperor Syndrome. At the Zhejiang Provincial Physical Education and Sports School in Hangzhou—one of the feeder schools that form the base of the pyramid of talent that produced 96% of the champions at China's most recent National Games—every gymnast is an only child. Every one, that is, except the best athlete in the class, Ning Bo, 9, whose twin brother attends art school. "My mother did not cry in front of me," he says of the scene at the beginning of the term when he was dropped off. "But of course she cried afterward, because I was leaving her."

And what of his twin brother? "I don't miss him," Bo says. "No, not at all. He misses me, but I don't miss him." Uneasy rests the butt that shares a throne.

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