Gutsy Li Na beats state system

FORERUNNER: Grand-slam winner Li Na deserted China's Soviet-inspired sports system - and blossomed.


    Jul 05, 2013

    Gutsy Li Na beats state system

    The New York Times

    LI NA, the Chinese tennis star, didn't make it all the way at Wimbledon this time: She lost out in the women's quarter-finals on Tuesday. But she has scored a broader success: Making it in the tennis world largely on her own.

    Li is a maverick - tattooed, with a sharp tongue and spunky court-side manner. She is also one of just a few Chinese sports players who have deserted the state system to go independent - and have blossomed as a result.

    China spends billions of dollars every year on its Soviet-inspired sports system. Children with special aptitudes or physical attributes are plucked from their families and farmed to thousands of sports schools across the country (swimming star and Olympic gold medallist Ye Shiwen is said to have been chosen for her unusually-large hands).

    The very best among them then move on to regional and national teams and receive state-sponsored coaching and accommodation. According to some accounts, there are 40,000 full-time athletes in China, 70 per cent of whom were trained in specialised state schools.

    If gold medals are anything to go by, the approach seems to work, at least in sports where excellence builds on repetition and feature set routines, such as diving and gymnastics.

    In sports where performance calls for swift reactions - like tennis and soccer - China's teams have typically struggled.

    Li was first shepherded into the state system as a young child. But in 2008, at age 26, she and three other tennis players battled the sports administration for the right to run their own professional lives.

    A new pilot scheme called danfei, "flying solo", was introduced and, under it, Li soared. In 2011, she became China's first (and only) grand-slam winner in the French Open.

    Since then she has been allowed to choose her coaches, schedules and sponsors.

    Instead of having to hand over to the state 65 per cent of the earnings and prize money she collects, as she did before, she now passes on reportedly 12 per cent at most.

    The rise of Li - and other self-made athletes like 14-year-old golf superstar Guan Tianlang - calls into question the effectiveness of state-run competitive-sports training.

    The system has slowly opened up over the last 15 years, according to Dr Pei Dongguang, a professor at Beijing's Capital Institute of Physical Education.

    China is increasingly sending its top athletes abroad for training or bringing in foreign coaches. In sports, as in economics, China is, in the name of improving performance, abandoning its top-down communist methods and adopting more market-driven approaches.

    As China has embraced opening up and reform, individual - not collective - will is becoming the order of the day.

    Li is openly critical of the notion that Chinese athletes should work for the nation rather than themselves.

    In an interview at the 2011 Australian Open, she was asked what got her through the third set in the semi-finals. "Prize money," she said, smiling.

    The capitalist model is beating out communism, one athlete at a time.