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In a few days Lu's former client will be selected sixth in the NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. For one of the first times in memory, you find yourself feeling sorry for an agent. That's a mistake.
"To me, Lu Hao is a winner," says fellow agent Dahai, 35, whose marriage to 1992 Olympic gold medal swimmer Qian Hong gave him an entr� to the national swimming scene that he has parlayed into ventures such as a new, privately controlled public sports park in suburban Beijing, the exclusive license to market TYR swimsuits in China and the premiere of a Grand Prix-style swim meet in Beijing on Aug. 9. "For now, it's all about trade-offs. He said, 'I'll give up Yi, but you give me more young basketball players.' All of them can generate more money than Yi alone."
Dahai has been burned by the system himself. In 2002, with permission from the country's sports administration, he organized a national swimming and diving competition, lined up television partners, set a date. "Then right before, an official called me and said, 'Dahai, this competition is for the nation to do, not for your private gain.' So they gave the competition to a spin-off group from the Chinese sports industry. Typical. This is not a normal market."
That episode cost him some $200,000, but Dahai shrugs off the loss. Unlike Lu Hao, he's energized by the lack of standards; for those who can work the angles, such a vacuum opens a world of possibility. "With the Beijing Olympics approaching, there's great opportunity for someone working in Chinese sports," he says. "Lu Hao knows what he's going to do. He's actually setting up the rules and standards for [marketing in] basketball himself. And I'm setting up the rules for swimming."
But the fissures in the state sports monopoly aren't forming under pressure from the market alone. Long the sole route to the national team, the network of around 3,000 sports schools that has identified and nurtured talented athletes--and also served as the incubator for the steroid scandals that plagued Chinese running and swimming in the 1990s--has come under attack too. Embarrassing accounts of undereducated and struggling ex-athletes have become common in recent years, and a 2005 lawsuit in a Beijing court is seen as a huge step toward legitimizing one effort to address the problem and create an alternative avenue to the top level of Chinese sports.
Technically, the suit pitted Tsinghua University against the family of one diver-- Wang Xin, current world champion in the 10-meter platform--who had bolted its prestigious program. But in truth the adversaries were coaching legend Yu Fen, head of the Tsinghua diving program, and the national sports administration that spawned her. No one of such stature had ever taken on China's sports system before, much less won.
As a onetime coach of the national program, Yu had for a decade guided the careers of star divers such as Fu Mingxia and Guo Jingjing. Yu parted ways with the national team in 1997 and, disillusioned by a system that produced not only Olympic champions but also burnouts with no skills other than diving, founded a program at Tsinghua that stressed time in the classroom as well as the pool. But as her NCAA-style approach grew more successful, Yu found her divers--more than a dozen--pulled back into the old system, poached by the national team. "We had to do it," Yu says of the lawsuit. "If we hadn't, it would be hard for us to have a team at all."
The court actually ruled against Tsinghua in Wang's case, but public pressure forced the sports administration to send two divers back to Yu's ranks, tacitly establishing the university team as an alternative to the sports school. It also made a blending of the two seem inevitable. "Ten years ago, it would have been impossible for Tsinghua to sue some other powerful organization," says Ren Hai. "It means the legal system is changing; that's a good sign. Because with the old system, the athletes who quit their careers cannot get very good jobs. It's become a big problem, like Ai Dongmei. If we don't combine the educational program into the traditional system, there will be no future."
The integration is already happening in fact if not in name; this year, for the first time, Tsinghua-trained divers are openly competing for spots on the national team, under the thin guise of their regional squads. "We're two different systems, and the big question is how to make the two coordinate," Yu says. "It's almost a year to the Olympics. Everyone should listen to what the nation says. To benefit the country: That should be the priority."
On a June Saturday in Beijing you find Xia Song overseeing the cleanup of an Olympic Day fun run in which 4,000 people have jogged the leafy paths of a college under the auspices of McDonald's, Panasonic and Coke. Xia, an unabashed booster of the Beijing Games, is one of China's top sports agents and marketers. He is also one of those people whose life uncannily tracks the history of his times.