Yao Ming urges China to let players travel overseas

This is a first for the Peking Duck – a post about basketball. (Enjoy it while you can – there aren’t going to be many more; watching tall people throw a ball into a hoop is useful only as a remedy for my chronic insomnia.) Yao Ming is challenging the Chinese government, urging them to allow the country’s basketball players to play overseas.

Yao Ming has called on Chinese sports authorities to let his national team-mates play overseas to get the experience they need to make China a force in international basketball.

“We cannot make enough progress by the national league alone: it’s like trying to build a cart without knowing how,” said Yao after their second round 95-64 rout by Greece.

“Chinese players have to go overseas to play. I mean, they should go there alone and fight for their positions on the teams. This is the only way to lift the overall level of Chinese basketball.”

The last-16 finish met the Chinese Basketball Association’s (CBA) target, but it was short of what Yao was personally aiming for: a quarter-final place.

Why won’t they let the Chinese players go overseas to get the practice they need? I don’t know much about sports – somebody please help me!

The Discussion: 10 Comments

But if Chinese athletes spend too much time overseas, they may be corrupted by foreign concepts such as freedom and democracy, diluting their love for the Party, SORRY, I mean Motherland.

Or they might realise they can have a better life if they move to another country and China will suffer a “brain drain” of its best athletes. Not that it would be likely, but who said the CCP was a logical organisation?

August 29, 2006 @ 6:40 am | Comment

Nice Cold War talk, Raj. I take it you don’t know anything about sports in China. Like a lot of things in China now, it’s a mix of capitalism with state control.

I’m not a basketball fan, but I’ll try to explain what I know.

This is about money for the team owners, and Party bureaucrats in the Chinese sports federations covering their asses.

Apparently you guys don’t understand that the Chinese National team is like the team that the U.S.A. puts together for the Olympics. The players all have other teams that they play professionally for during the normal season — but for almost all of them, these are Mainland teams like the Shanghai Sharks, and are run for profit. As far as I know, only about three or four Chinese players play for foreign teams like Yao Ming.

Yao is talking about getting the owners and sports federations to let the players play in foreign leagues like the NBA, and improve their game that way, as he has done.

But for most of these Mainland teams, what is in it for the owners? Winning teams are what bring in fans and sponsorships — and you don’t build a winning team by giving away your best players. Maybe in the end they’ll get back a better player — but like a lot of capitalists, they tend to look at short term profits.

In Yao’s case, it took complicated negotiations for him to play with the Houston Rockets. In return for allowing him to leave, his old team — the Sharks — and several Mainland sports federations all get a big share of his U.S. earnings. On top of that, Yao had to agree to come back to play for the National Team for tournaments like the one in Japan.

It’s generally brutal for guys like Yao, because normally the off-season should be a time for recovery and training. There is a lot of talk that these guys are getting run into the ground, burning out and getting injured. In other words, for the short term glory of Sports Ministry bureaucrats, athletes are getting ruined instead of being seen as an investment for the future.

In previous Olympics, China’s coaches have been terrible — I suspect more likely to have attained their positions due to party politics than ability. To avoid being blamed for losses, they made players practice everyday, with no rest days — because then no one could accuse them of not driving the players hard enough. Fortunately, China now uses more professional coaches.

It’s a good thing that Yao is big enough now that he speak out about this openly. A lesser athlete criticizing the system could have gotten blacklisted.

August 29, 2006 @ 1:11 pm | Comment

That is great information, Danfried. It could be an even better post if the tone was a little less haughty…

August 29, 2006 @ 9:41 pm | Comment

Agree with Thomas – great stuff, but the intro could have been a little softer.

August 29, 2006 @ 9:46 pm | Comment

I’m afraid I had a knee-jerk reaction to Raj’s knee-jerk reaction.

I’m just tired of people assuming China is just like the Soviet Union in its heyday. China is no democracy, but is also far more open to outside influence than the Soviet Union ever was.

I assume Raj isn’t familiar with Yao and the other Chinese NBA players because Raj is Indian (I’m just assuming, correct me if I’m wrong).

Yao Ming is probably the most famous Chinese person in America right now. The way he lives is common knowledge to most Americans.

He isn’t surrounded by PSB agents trying to prevent him from defecting. As a matter of fact, his management team is made up mainly of Asian Americans. He travels with the rest of his team like any other player. He bought his own car and has a driver’s license.

He doesn’t have government agents acting as his translator, putting words into his mouth. He made a point of selecting a Caucasian American as his translator, though his English has improved enough that he hardly needs him anymore, and he’ll speak directly on camera now.

His family wasn’t held hostage back on the Mainland — during his first season his mother stayed at his house in the U.S. with him, and his father visits.

He’s done American commercials for everything from Apple Computer to Visa.

In short, he’s had more than a little exposure to the West, and the Chinese government doesn’t _physically_ keep him on a leash. And so far he hasn’t defected, even though he probably could if he wanted to. He’s honoured his agreements with his old team and the CBA, spending four months a year back in China when it is obviously taking a lot out of him. He’s stated in his own book that he realizes if he screws things up, he’ll ruin it for any other Chinese players that may follow him.

Quite frankly, considering how much life has gotten better in China for the middle class and wealthy, I think the only high-level defectors you would get nowadays from China are corrupt officials and traitors seeking to escape before getting caught.

August 30, 2006 @ 1:19 am | Comment

I’ve already said a lot, but wanted to add a few more things.

First, sorry Raj for the attitude. Even though I’m not a Chinese citizen, I’ve got patriotic feelings that can only take so much of the backhanded putdowns. I need a thicker skin.

Second, I just remembered about another Chinese player in the NBA, Wang Zhizhi, who _didn’t_ honour his agreements — a few years ago he didn’t return for the off-season the way he was supposed to because he wanted to do what was best for his own development. As a result, he had to switch American teams (because his first American team had also made assurances to the Chinese). His new team’s games were afterward not shown on Chinese television.

I just found out today that Wang played for the National team this summer! I guess this shows the government can forgive you — if you’re repentant, and also happen to be a valuable player…

August 30, 2006 @ 1:47 am | Comment

Remember, though, that Wang Zhizhi was enticed back to China with assurances that nothing would be done to him, and once he got back he was required to make several public apologies for letting down the Chinese people and had to attend military training (essentially as a punishment) before he could play again.

August 30, 2006 @ 2:33 am | Comment

Danfried I made it clearly obvious the tone was sarcastic. If you don’t get that then that’s your problem, not mine.

August 30, 2006 @ 3:56 am | Comment

However, apology accepted.

August 30, 2006 @ 3:58 am | Comment

I have no interest in sports, however I do personally know a former Chinese Olympic athlete, and his experiences are quite in line with Raj’s tongue-in-cheek comments.

Whenever the team traveled for international meets, he said that the athletes never once saw their passports, those were carefully held by the team officials.

He told me about a meet they attended in Rome. The players spent most of their time restricted to their hotel rooms while the team officials went sight-seeing and shopping. The players were allowed one very brief, escorted trip to a shopping venue, after which they were quickly herded back onto the bus and returned to their hotel rooms. The athlete said that despite spending several days in Rome, his experience of Italy was mainly the hotel and the airport.

The athlete’s parents were given just the barest information about where the athletes were headed and what they would be doing, the parents were told it was restricted state information.

This guy’s comments about his coaching exactly fits Danfried’s description of “old school” Chinese sports coaches – not the least, not even the slightest bit of concern over the athlete’s health, just work them like draft animals to cover the coach’s ass in case of failure. This explains why, at least for some sports, many Chinese Olympic athletes are markedly younger than their competition. They are simply worn out early by the system.

By the way, this guy is no longer in sports due to conditions he developed from illegal drugs his team was administered without their knowledge or consent. All this took place in the last few years.

From what this guy told me, Danfried is spot-on that Chinese coaching isn’t much about sports or athletic competition. It’s about money, and (in the case of the Olympics)national honor. Sad to say, the athlete’s health and welfare appear to count about as much as the average Chinese miner’s.

August 30, 2006 @ 9:01 am | Comment

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