Tennis Win May Bring Reforms

Chinese athlete bucked the state training system, excelled on her own.
2011-06-07
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Li Na holds the trophy after winning the French Open tennis championship in Paris, June 4, 2011.
Li Na holds the trophy after winning the French Open tennis championship in Paris, June 4, 2011.
AFP

The victory of rebel Chinese tennis star Li Na in the French Open has caused many in China to question the state-controlled Communist Party system of training top athletes.

China's top tennis official Sun Jinfang said in an interview with official media that Li's victorywhich came after she ditched both the state-backed training and management system and her husband-cum-coachwould likely prompt other young athletes to consider going it alone.

"Li Na will play a significant role in developing the future of tennis in China, and will attract more young people to the sport," Sun said.

But she said reforms of the current cradle-to-retirement selection and training system would likely follow, too.

"Li's successful experience may encourage more tennis players to go down this path," she said.

Going it alone

In 2008, Li challenged the entire Party-backed machine that trains young Chinese to become top-performing athletes.

The 28-year-old, whose rose tattoo has drawn much comment from China's gossip-ridden Internet, left the national sports system when she was denied permission to marry her coach, Jiang Shan.

Together with fellow tennis stars Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie, and Yan Zi, she negotiated a deal that won them the right to more of their own winnings, and the freedom to choose their coaches and their matches.

Li is now ranked seventh in world tennis rankings after she beat defending champion Francesca Schiavone in straight-sets on Saturday, becoming the first Asian tennis player to win a singles Grand Slam event.

Sun told China's official Xinhua news agency that there should be innovation in the centralized training system.

"The policymakers in the state sports administration weren't very proactive in preventing Li Na and the other athletes from leaving the old system," wrote sports journalist Wang Dazhao in the Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper.

"They never thought it would get to a point where there was no going back."

General public ignored

Wang said Beijing's haul of 51 gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics shouldn't be taken as a sign that China has become a great sporting nation.

"There are still a lot of limitations in terms of the physical fitness and participation in sports of ordinary citizens," he wrote.

A member of a Hebei-based sports association surnamed Fan agreed. "If you want the whole sports system to earn the title of great sporting nation, then the problem still lies with the broad masses of ordinary people," he said.

China spends billions of dollars annually on its state sports development budget, but the Soviet-inspired program has been criticized for ignoring the general public.

Out of a population of 1.3 billion, only around 12 million Chinese currently play tennis regularly, a recent survey has shown.

State system criticized

China's sports development programs came in for strong criticism from a former top official during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Government talent scouts handpick promising youngsters at an early age, taking them away from their families to a life of permanent training and discipline, according to Bao Tong, former aide to late disgraced premier Zhao Ziyang.

"China's athletes are chosen as young children ... and taken away from their families, from their schools, and totally cut off from normal social activities," Bao said, in an essay bitterly critical of the Communist Party's approach to sports.

"The door is closed, and they give up their entire youth and part of their childhoods for the sole aim of entering and winning competitions, an aim for which they are totally remolded by the system," he wrote.

Bao said that while China has an unending supply of human talent, the system does little to encourage ordinary people to get fitter and healthier.

Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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