With the qualifying period for the 2012 Olympics in London approaching, the stakes are quickly getting higher in the international badminton world. The 2011 season begins in earnest today with the Yonex All England 2011 tournament in Birmingham, one of the sport’s “Grand Slam” (BWF Super Series) events.
China is looking to maintain its dominance in the sport, but faces strong challenges from the likes of Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea and Denmark. Hosts England, with just one entrant in each of the singles events, faces an uphill battle to assert itself more strongly as both the next Olympic host and the game’s country of origin.
Play begins Wednesday March 9, and runs through Sunday March 13. I haven’t checked the TV schedule, but expect plenty of CCTV-5 coverage. The tournament website is here.
China’s Wang Shixian is the favorite after Wang Yihan (China) and Tine Baun (nee Rasmussen, Denmark) withdrew due to injuries. Her toughest opponents will be countrywoman Wang Xin and India’s Saina Nehwal, the 2010 Commonwealth Games champion.
Lin Dan, aka Super Dan, one of Chinese sport’s biggest stars, is going for an unprecedented fifth All England title. Other major contenders are defending All England champion, Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia); and reigning world champion Chen Jin (China).
To reach the finals, China’s third-seeded Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang will likely need to get past the top-seeded Taiwanese pair of Cheng Wen-Hsing and Chien Yu-Chin.
This is probably the most wide-open event this year. China’s top pair are world title holders Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng, but they are only seeded sixth behind the top-seeded Danish duo of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen, and teams from Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia.
China has four teams in this event, including top seeds Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei, and the fifth-seeded Tian Qing and Tao Jiaming.
Related: Badzine’s All-England Preview
I am usually not too interested in pro athlete off-season visits to Beijing. They come, they shoot a few baskets or kick a few balls, and stop at the Great Wall before taking off for Shanghai, and maybe Guangzhou or Chengdu. The trips are important for any international sports brand or athlete who wants a presence in China, but the events are generally formulaic and boring.
Yesterday, though, the latest contingent to stop in China’s capital was a little different. It was somewhat of a homecoming for Ed Wang, who became the NFL’s first player of full Chinese descent to play in the NFL after the Buffalo Bills drafted him last year. Wang (whose Chinese name is Wang Kai, or 王凯）visited Beijing along with Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Sidney Rice, and retired players Barrett Green and Jack Brewer.
As the players mixed it up in a flag football game with local college students, and tossed balls with a group of kindergartners, I had a great chat with Ed’s parents, Nancy and Robert, who were taking in the scene together with some of their former teammates and friends.
The Wangs were on China’s national track and field team in the 1970s and 1980s, and played a big role in Ed’s development as an athlete, as detailed by this excellent article from The Buffalo Story Project (The Rookie: Chinese, and in the NFL). “Nancy was in charge of his speed training, and I took care of weightlifting,” Rob says. Ed loves the game himself, but his parents did encourage him to play football, based on his size and athletic gifts (he now stands 6’4″ and weighs over 300 pounds). Robert adds that he wishes he had had the chance to play the game himself; he was an accomplished high jumper, and most of his team sport experience was in handball.
Football, American-style, only has a tiny fan base in China. But Robert Wang is a ready evangelist for the sport, and believes it has a good chance to catch on in his birth country. “There is no question about it. Football is the best game in the world,” he says. “It’s the ultimate team sport, and it teaches kids discipline and toughness. These are things Chinese parents want for their kids today.”
Can football really catch on in China? It’s a question I hear often, and there are certainly some characteristics that make the sport a difficult sell in this market. The game is violent, and people here seem to show a general preference for games with less contact. It’s also a complex game, not easily understood by the casual viewer, which has yet to catch on outside of North America.
Ed’s parents, much more familiar with China than their son, don’t think that either of these are deal-breakers for the sport here. “Injury is part of sport,” says Nancy, whose hurdling career was plagued by injuries. “Just because the percentages are higher in football, that’s not a reason not to play.” As for the game’s opacity, the Wangs have fielded questions about rules and strategy from their old friends throughout their son’s career, and say that, once people learn a little, the game’s intricacy adds to its appeal.
After a losing season in which he saw limited action, Ed’s offseason focus needs to be on his own game, not the future of the sport in the country where his parents grew up. But at the end of the afternoon at Beijing’s Shijingshan Gymnasium, he said what he had seen Tuesday made him optimistic. “To be honest, I had no idea there were organized groups playing here,” he says. “If you understand the game, of course you start to enjoy it more.”
If you want to know more about Wang’s path to the league, the above-mentioned The Rookie: Chinese, and in the NFL, from The Buffalo Story Project, is an excellent profile.
That’s what Chinese sports media are calling Zhou Qi (周琦), after he carried China’s U16 basketball team to the championship at a youth tournament in Turkey earlier this week. Zhou’s breakout performance was in the semifinal against Germany – the 2.15-meter (7-foot) center poured in 41 points, grabbed 28 rebounds and swatted away 15 shots. Zhou had a little extra time to produce in that game, which went into three overtimes before China won, 94-90. He posted 30 points and 17 rebounds in a one-point win over Turkey in the final, and averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 5.4 blocks over the course of the seven-game tournament.
“Why hasn’t China produced an NBA star since Yao Ming?” is one of the questions I get asked a lot. It’s usually a rhetorical question, followed up with a tally of all the flaws of Chinese basketball. It’s also a question that carries a greater sense of urgency now that Yao’s career is fading fast thanks to injuries.
Basketball writer Yang Yi of Titan Sports News is urging a little restraint (“Next Yao Ming” is a mistake), pointing out that the tournament was an invitational, not a marquee international event, and not a good gauge of how Zhou stacks up against the world’s best in his age group (assuming he is even really under 16). Yang also shares some less impressive Zhou statistics: He weighs 83 kilos (183 pounds) and can bench press a wimpy 40.5 (89 pounds).
As families across China gather for the start of the New Year holiday this weekend, millions of Tvs will be tuned in to the sports channel Saturday afternoon—to watch Li Na face Kim Clijsters at the Australian Open, trying to become her country’s first Grand Slam champion.
Li has already made history; her comeback win over world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in Melbourne Thursday made her the first Chinese tennis player to reach a Grand Slam final. Interviewed post-match, Li said her motivation in the final set was “prize money,” and local news stories have focused heavily on the purse—$2.2 million AUD ($2.175 USD, or more than 14 million RMB) if she wins, and half that if she loses.
Although China’s 51-gold medal performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics showed that it has its share of world-class athletes, few of these athletes have the chance to compete for millions. Yao Ming is among the NBA’s 10 best-paid players, but Liu Xiang can only compete for a few dozen thousand dollars at the IAAF World Championships.
But there’s a lot more than $2 million USD at stake here. If Li Na can win Saturday, and follow that up with a strong season, she should be able to rack up the endorsements from now through the 2012 Olympics in London.
Li’s big moment coincides with a void at the top of the Chinese sports world, a lack of active elites. Yao Ming played limited minutes in five games, before injuring himself yet again and announcing he would sit out the 2010-11 season (though that didn’t stop Chinese fans from voting him into the starting lineup at the All-Star game). Yi Jianlian is averaging about 6 points and 3 rebounds for the Washington Wizards, who have not won a road game all season. Liu Xiang was back in form en route to his Asian Games gold in November, but has yet to prove he has recovered his ability to beat the world’s best. And although diver Guo Jingjing will stay in the limelight, a retired athlete makes a much less compelling pitchwoman.
IMG has handled Li’s commercial activities since 2009, about a year after she struck out on her own when China’s tennis federation extended to top players the freedom to set their own training schedules, handle their own business deals, and keep more of their winnings. Li has been an outspoken advocate of expanding this policy to other sports, saying last year, “It is very important for us to have the right to choose. I really mean it.”
Li Na will play in a Grand Slam semifinal for the second time in her career, after defeating Germany’s Andrea Petkovic in the Australian Open quarterfinals yesterday.
It’s not the first time that a Chinese player has made it into a Grand Slam semi – that honor goes to Zheng Jie, who reached the Wimbledon semifinal in 2008, and then along with Li became the first two Chinese players to reach the semis in the same Grand Slam, at last year’s Australian Open. But this tournament’s final four offers the best shot yet for a Chinese player to reach the final, with weaker competition than they have faced in the past. Li’s next opponent, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, is currently the World No. 1, but has never won a Grand Slam. In fact, of the remaining players, only Kim Clijsters has. She holds three US Open titles, from 2005, 2009 and 2010.
By contrast, last year in Melbourne Zheng lost to Justine Henin, winner of seven Grand Slams. Serena Williams defeated Li and went on to win her 26th Grand Slam title. Li and Wozniacki play in the afternoon on Thursday, January 27.
Finally, while we’re on the subject of Li Na, I’d like to take a second to editorialize on what I find to be a horribly insensitive and borderline racist approach to this story by a British newspaper. The Guardian’s man in Melbourne, Kevin Mitchell teases us with the headline “Li Na hopes to make great leap forward against Caroline Wozniacki.”
The Great Leap Forward was the euphemistic propaganda name given to a Mao Zedong campaign that caused the death of millions of Chinese people – many due to starvation. Hardly something to bring up as we should be celebrating the great strides made by China’s female tennis players, strides often attributed to the Chinese tennis administration’s willingness to experiment with giving its athletes more freedom than is enjoyed by their peers in other sports.
After that, Mitchell brings us this lede:
“Li Na is not half a police siren but it might well be the skinniest collection of letters of any major figure in the history of sport. The 28-year-old player from Hubei province in the middle of China is two matches from expanding her profile beyond her fondest dreams in the final of the Australian Open.”
Seriously? This athlete starts off the 2011 season with a Grand Slam semifinal appearance, and you start off an article about her by making fun of her name for… being short and sounding foreign? If Li Na makes it to the next stage, hopefully Mitchell will dispense with the crude jokes, and resist the urge to call this “Tennis’s Cultural Revolution.”
“Diving Princes” Guo Jingjing is retiring at 29, several news outlets announced Monday. With four Olympic golds and 10 world titles, the 3-meter springboard diver is one of the most dominant ever in her sport, one of just four divers with four Olympic golds. Her retirement comes as no surpise – Guo has not competed since the 2009 National Games – but it marks the end of a groundbreaking career.
Along with Liu Xiang and Yao Ming, Guo is head and shoulders above her fellow Chinese athletes in terms of star power. And she puts that to work with a host of endorsements — shilling everything from swimsuits to yogurt to laundry detergent. Both
Coca-Cola and McDonald’s featured her prominently in their pre-Olympic ad blitzes.
Diving officials haven’t always been supportive of Guo’s career out of the pool. After the 2004 Olympics in Athens, she was suspended from the team for putting too much energy into commercial activities, and had to make a public self-criticism to get back on the team.
Four years later, her popularity and two-gold medal performance in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing helped Guo move from 28th to 4th on Forbes China’s annual celebrity rankings.
Guo is unlikely to disappear quietly back to her home province of Hebei, or even nearby Beijing. She appears just as frequently in the tabloids as she does in the sports media, and is rumored to be getting married later this year to long-time boyfriend Kenneth Fok, son of tycoon Timothy Tsun-Ting Fok, who also happens to be president of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee.
China’s disappointments in football continued as the team was knocked out of the AFC Asian Cup in the first round. A win over Kuwait (2-0) was cancelled out by a loss to Qatar (0-2) and a draw with Uzbekistan (2-2), to leave China in third place in Group A. The top two teams, Qatar and Uzbekistan, proceed to the quarterfinals. Other teams remaining are Iraq, North Korea, UAE, Iran, Japan and Jordan.
Despite the early exit, the Chinese federation still wants coach Gao Hongbo to continue to lead the team in its quest to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The team will, however, look to hire a “foreign technical consultant,” according to a report from Xinhua, quoting Chinese Football Association chief Wei Di: “The CFA officials have agreed that it’s necessary for China’s soccer to have some great coaches of our own. So we decided to go abroad and to invite a coach for the coaches,” he said.
Zhang Linpeng image: Xinhua
After posting a 2-0 win over Kuwait in its first game of the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011, China plays host Qatar tonight at 7:15 local time (Beijing time, 12:15 a.m. Thursday). Qatari soccer has one huge recent victory, its selection to host the 2022 World Cup; and one huge recent flop, the 2010 Asian Games’ most inexcusable missed goal. The team is coached by Serbian Bora Milutinovic, who led China in its only FIFA World Cup appearance, in 2002. They come in off of a 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan.
Milutinovic is not the only former Chinese national team coach at the Asian Cup — England’s Bob Houghton, who coached China from 1997 to 1999, is leading India.
The Chinese team, coached by Gao Hongbo (高洪波), is the country’s youngest national team ever. Its two goals against Kuwait came from 21-year-old Zhang Linpeng and 22-year-old Deng Zhuoxiang.
China’s final Group A game will be Sunday, January 16 against Uzbekistan.
Gao Hongbo image: YHNEWS.com.cn
Aside from domination, what is Chinese badminton best known for? Sadly, the answer is poor sportsmanship—specifically, throwing and no-showing matches, thereby resting its top players and manipulating results to allow its second-tier players to qualify and/or secure favorable seeds for the most important tournaments.
The latest example took place last weekend at the Li-Ning Singapore Open, where China’s Lin Dan, aka “Super Dan,” withdrew from the final citing a stomach virus. What good fortune for China’s badminton delegation — that stomach virus handed Chen Jin the win by forfeit and his first-place finish will improve his seed for the London 2012 Olympics. Olympic gold medalist Lin was booed by Singapore Indoor Stadium’s crowd of more than 7,000, who didn’t get the show they paid for.
It’s not doing any good for China’s reputation in the sports world, which already has the taint of poor sportsmanship from gymasts and footballers who are younger than they say they are, and basketball players who are older. It’s not good for badminton, which may never be taken seriously as a sport in the United States, and is losing ground to basketball and football in China. And it can’t be good for Li-Ning, the sponsor of the Singapore Open, the Chinese team, and of Lin himself.
The Chinese team are hearing it from the badminton press, who are skeptical that Lin was sick, although they concede that the decision to withdraw probably did not rest with him, but with a coach or team leader. BadZine.com editor-in-chief Raphael Sachetat wrote an insightful editorial on the topic earlier this week (No show: is that promotion?), which includes some great detail and background information on the situation. And something else Sachetat wrote more than two years ago seems to still be relevant in the badminton world: “If only Chinese badminton benefits from its own growth, the sport might simply be taken out of the Olympic program someday. Sponsors will then vanish and the little money coming in will be gone for a while. That’s what is called shooting oneself in the foot…” (China out of SS finals: shooting itself in the foot).
While China’s “strategy” is an openly criticized secret, it doesn’t seem to draw the attention that matters most — that of the Badminton World Federation, which seem unable or unwilling to investigate the behavior for the standard-bearers of its sport.
Life isn’t getting any easier for Chinese football fans. Despite playing in Shanghai against a team whose country’s population is less than a fifth of Shanghai’s, China’s men’s Olympic team lost its London 2012 qualifier to Oman, 1-0. (Oman humiliates China in Shanghai — China Daily) The Chinese team gets another shot Thursday, this time in the scorching summer sun of Oman. China’s women’s team is usually a bright spot in the country’s football program, but they failed to qualify for the 2011 Women’s World Cup, which starts next week in Germany.
Yao Ming: “I do not dare say I am optimistic right now.”
After saying a few weeks ago that he badly wants his daughter to see him play in the NBA, Yao Ming seems to be preparing his fans and his team for the likelihood that his playing days are over. Speculation about the big man’s retirement has been building since after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, when he managed to recover from a foot fracture to compete. Despite Houston’s strategy last season of limiting his playing time to less than half of each game, he didn’t even make it through November. Yao’s contract expires June 30 – don’t be surprised if you see the Houston Rockets select a center with the 12th pich in the NBA Draft Thursday night in Newark.
Action sports’ prospects in China
We’re a little late to share this with you, but it’s still relevant. Thoughtful China, a new weekly online show from branded content creator Thoughtful Media dedicated to analysis of Chinese business news and trends, recently did a piece on action sports. Coming on the heel of the Kia XGames Asia, held in Shanghai for the fifth time, the show looks at the growth of these sports here, through the eyes of some figures in China’s sports business world. Appearing on the show are Harvey Davis, ESPN’s vice president of event management; Chien Hwang, executive creative director at TBWA China; and Eric Lai, sports marketing manager, China at Converse. Perhaps the best observation on the show comes from Hwang, who notes that brands that help foster the growth of a sport in China will see a much bigger return than those that wait for a sport to catch on before investing in it.
To watch from inside China, here’s the GFW-friendly link
To watch from outside China, here’s the Youtube-friendly link