Li Na is hardly an enfant terrible in international sporting terms; no major clashes with umpires, no falling out of nightclubs blind-drunk and not even any obvious signs of an addiction to clothes shopping.
But China’s leading female tennis player has still become a poster child for a new breed of sports star – one that wants more control over their career path and its associated rewards.
Traditionally, the country’s sporting system has been Stalinist in its simplicity of purpose. Children are identified at a young age for a certain sport, and then funnelled through government programmes in hope of achieving glory for the motherland.
Promising youngsters leave home to live and train in specialised sports schools in the major cities. The best ones climb the ranks of more intensive coaching to the apex of the national elite sport system, at the National Training Centre.
The results-driven focus has been a success too, with China topping the gold medal count at last year’s Beijing Olympics.
But it can also lead to an “overbearing and rigid” system, admits the China Daily. It leaves little opportunity for personal freedom or self-expression – or even for many visits home to friends and family.
Hence Li’s outburst: “If I had an opportunity to choose what I wanted to do in childhood, I wouldn’t have gone for tennis,” she told the newspaper. “It is a sport that I was always pushed to do, first by my parents, then provincial and national sports administrators.”
So last year Li Na was joined by Wimbledon semi-finalist Zheng Jie, and two other leading Chinese players, Yan Zi and Peng Shuai, in rebelling. They have demanded to be allowed to manage their own careers and keep a greater share of prize money.
More broadly, it isn’t surprising that today’s sporting elite is keener to strike out on its own, says Times Business. It is a reflection of changes in Chinese society; plus the young stars have a wider range of friends and contacts than their predecessors, and more experience of competing and living in different environments. It is much more difficult to keep them satisfied within the more rigid, state-sponsored training regimes. Of course, with so much more potential personal wealth now on offer, they are also more interested in financial reward than the earlier generation of Chinese sportspeople.
So are bust ups inevitable? Compare the returns on offer to China’s first gold medal winner Xu Haifeng (a doubling of salary to $14 a month following his success in the free pistol shot in 1984 in Los Angeles) with Yao Ming’s $51 million earnings for 2008 at the Houston Rockets.
Not that the state is surrendering completely and, for a number of stars, revenue-share agreements are still in place. The 110-metre hurdler and Athens gold medallist Liu Xiang gets to keep half of his earnings, for example, with the remainder being split with his coach, his hometown of Shanghai‘s sports bureau and the Chinese Athletics Association.
And stars that are thought to be getting too big for their boots can be punished too. A diving champion from the Sydney Olympics, Tian Liang, was forced out of contention for the Beijing games, after ignoring advice on his own commercial activities. Basketball player Wang Zhihi – who spent two years persuading his military bosses to allow him to play in the NBA – also angered coaches by refusing to return to train with the national team in 2002.
Wang was barred from selection for four years (there was even talk of a court martial) and only returned to the fold after a full apology. Rather sheepishly, he characterised the row with the basketball authorities as similar to that between a “son and a mother”.
Sometimes, perhaps, “mother” still knows best. But it also seems likely that the Chinese state will find it ever harder to exert control over its highest profile stars in future – especially those who go on to become sporting brands in their own right.
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