IT WAS August 2006, and China's national team had just been trounced by LeBron James and the U.S. in an exhibition basketball game in the southern city of Guangzhou. Center Yao Ming, who'd sat out with a toe injury, walked to center court to address the crowd. He planned to thank the fans for coming and promise them a better performance at the upcoming world championships. The show of humility was a gesture common to Chinese athletes, like bowing to the pool after a dive to show it respect. ¶ But suddenly there was a very un-Chinese glitch—a lapse in security that allowed spectators to surge onto the court. The most famous athlete in their country's history, a 7'6", larger-than-life figure deemed untouchable by his 1.3 billion countrymen, was suddenly within reach. The fans rushed toward him, encircled him and then ... stopped. They couldn't bring themselves to crowd into him for autographs. They couldn't break that invisible barrier between him and them.
The long-standing barrier between China's athletes and the rest of the world has been equally impervious. It is a wall built of ignorance, not deference. Westerners in particular tend to view Chinese athletes as little more than mass-produced commodities. The rowers, gymnasts and other Olympians who roll off the assembly line at China's more than 3,000 government-run sports schools seem to have been forged in a setting devoid of humanity. Talented boys and girls leave home as young as age six. Days off are rare. Training is intense. A defective model—an athlete who is injured or unable to perform under pressure—is quickly replaced.
Never mind that the same can be said about some Olympians produced by the U.S. system. Or that we've been down this road before—remember when Americans saw all Soviet athletes as automatons? The Chinese stereotype leaves no room for the joy, variety and personality of the 600 or so athletes who will represent the home country in Beijing. It assumes that these athletes are the only ones in China.
But the China that has won 116 gold medals since the People's Republic rejoined the Olympic movement in 1979, and that has more than 17,000 athletes in national-team pipelines, also has more recreational athletes than any other nation. Travel the country and you will see boys of all ages playing pickup basketball. (These days they're as likely to dream of becoming LeBron or Kobe Bryant as Yao.) Casual Ping-Pong tournaments, kids kicking soccer balls, swimmers doing laps in outdoor pools beneath big clocks that count down the hours to the opening ceremonies—all are part of the sports landscape. You will find parks filled with tai chi classes, solo kung fu practitioners and elderly Chinese (vastly more active than their U.S. counterparts) doing various exercises on equipment designed especially for them.
Athletics are now part of college life. There are mandatory gym classes, university-wide track meets and even an NCAA-style national basketball tournament. The notion that everyone should play sports was promoted by the Ministry of Education, which in December 2006 decreed (among other fitness initiatives) that every village in the country should have two Ping-Pong tables and a basketball court by 2012.
The sports schools continue to churn out athletes, but in the new China not everyone fits the mold—or heads off as a child to train full time. There is room for Yi Jianlian to be discovered as a youngster on a playground in Shenzhen and end up in the NBA eight years later. There is room for Fu Mingxia to go to college to study economics after winning three Olympic gold medals in women's diving and then return to the sport in 2000 to win a fourth. There is room for 2004 women's 10,000-meter champion Xing Huina to opt out of the system and rediscover her love of the sport under James Li, who was raised in China but is now a coach at Arizona.
China's roster for Beijing includes many who don't fit the factory-product stereotype: Reigning world and Olympic champion diver Guo Jingjing, China's most famous female athlete, has the beauty and grace of a supermodel; willowy volleyball star Zhao Ruirui carries a portfolio of her hand-drawn clothing designs wherever she goes; superconfident women's table tennis gold medalist Zhang Yining loves to hold court at domestic press conferences.
Language differences, of course, form much of the wall between China's athletes and the West. The 20-year-old Yi, now a New Jersey Net, works on his English in interviews but falls back on Mandarin when necessary. The day after the so-called Chinese Super Bowl—a February game between the Milwaukee Bucks (for whom the 7-foot Yi then played) and Yao's Houston Rockets that was watched by a reported 200 million Chinese—Yi told SI that his transition to the NBA was "a very big ... tiaozhan [challenge]. The people, the life, everything is different for me."
If any player has begun to break down the wall and show the West a truer picture of The Chinese Athlete, it is the 27-year-old Yao—himself a product of his country's sports system. Yao is, to many around the world, the face of the Beijing Games. He knows the significance. Last month Yao told a packed Beijing press conference that these Olympics are the most important opportunity of his career. Yao's self-effacing humor, fluent English and willingness to step forward have made him a locker-room leader for the Rockets and a model for a new Chinese athlete—one willing to engage the world. After the May earthquake that devastated his country's Sichuan province, Yao founded the Yao Ming Foundation to rebuild schools in the region. He made a personal donation of $2 million and raffled off a trip to the Olympics to build support for the program.
Because of the respect he commands, Yao finds himself in a unique position among Chinese athletes. He has become both the crown jewel of the sports system and a nuanced critic of its excesses. When he felt the national team was being worn down by a heavy schedule last summer, Yao publicly admonished his country's basketball leadership. He said simply of his teammates, "They are people, not machines."