It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career

I follow sports. As I am someone interested in China, I have followed the Chinese sports establishment. As I am someone born and raised in Indiana, I love basketball. Thus, I am a fan of Yao Ming. Alas, the Houston Rockets (Yao’s team) disappointingly lost in the first round of the playoffs this past week.

Yao’s loss alone was not enough to inspire a blog post though. The LA Times published a depressing story about those Chinese athletes who do not end up being the stars of track and field or basketball or anything really.

Chinese athletes are run into the ground

Inequality and the desperate poverty of millions of Chinese is central to this narrative. The potential for riches and fame lead many parents to give up their children to “coaches” who promise to turn them into celebrity athletes. Some coaches are corrupt, beat their charges and steal their salaries and winnings. The focus of the piece is on Guo Ping, a former long-distance runner who “was just 9 when she started training as a marathon runner.” Now, at 30 she cannot walk for more than 10 minutes without resting because her feet are deformed from her previous “training regimen.”

The story mentions another aspect of the sports industry in China that interests me:

The athlete’s entire training is financed by the state, and successful athletes, even basketball whiz kid Yao Ming, now a star for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, are considered government properties who must do as their leaders say.

China remains a poor country. Yet it invests substantial resources in elite athletics and considers the number of Olympic medals the country’s athletes win a significant measure of Chinese development. Why is this the case? Why do states invest in elite athletics? If the answer is something akin to nationalism or glory or improve the nation’s image of itself, then the question becomes: why is there such wide variation between the amounts that states invest? Why hasn’t India followed China’s lead to focus on the Olympics? I definitely think that I could get a research publication out of this topic. The fact that I would have to interview Yao Ming is just a side benefit of this effort to understand an important under-analyzed topic.

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