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After rebel Li Na's success, China's old sporting system faces questions

Li Na speaks to the press after her women's singles final defeat to Kim Clijsters of Belgium at the Australian Open 2011, in Melbourne on Saturday.   | Photo Credit: Rob Griffith

For a poster-girl of Chinese tennis, Li Na has surprisingly subversive views about her nation's sports programmes.

Ms. Li created history last week, becoming the first Chinese to reach the final of a Grand Slam at the Australian Open. She lost Saturday's final to Belgium's Kim Clijsters, but won huge acclaim back home, splashed across the front pages of Sunday's newspapers as the nation's next big sporting idol.

But only two years ago, she was seen as a sporting rebel, a rare outspoken critic of China's famously rigid national sporting programmes. “If I had an opportunity to choose what I wanted to do in childhood,” she said in an interview in 2009, “I wouldn't go for tennis. It is a sport that I was always pushed to do, first by my parents, then provincial and national sports administrators.” China's sports officials, she said, needed to start giving young sportsmen and women “the right to choose.”

Ms. Li became one of first tennis players who quit the State-run programme, declining government support and choosing to go it alone.

For decades, China's sports have followed the old Soviet-style model. The government invested heavily in sports programmes. Children were enrolled young, and had every aspect of their lives strictly controlled by State-appointed coaches.

Rigid programme

The programme has brought China much success, most evident during the Beijing 2008 Olympics, where the country swept 51 gold medals. The model has, however, been increasingly blamed for stunting the development of individual talent. It has also been criticised for interfering too much into the lives of its athletes — an anachronism in today's China, where young Chinese are growing accustomed to greater freedom to live their lives. One national newspaper described the tennis programme as “overbearing” and “rigid.”

Chinese tennis has been on the upswing since 2004, when Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won a gold medal in women's doubles at the Athens Olympics. A first grand slam title followed two years later, when Zheng Jie and Yan Zi won the doubles crown at the 2006 Australian Open.

Ms. Zheng and Ms. Yan joined Ms. Li Na in leaving the national programme in 2008. Today, all three of them are in the Women's Tennis Association's top 100 rankings, where China, for the first time in its history, has four players. Zhang Shuai, ranked 91, is the exception in staying on in the national programme.

Ms. Li Na said in an interview she had no regrets about leaving the programme: “I love what it is right now. In the past, national or the provincial sports administrators arranged everything for you and you have no options but to follow their arrangements.”

Success begets change

Her success has now prompted administrators to consider overhauling the old system, and moving towards a model where athletes are given more space. “Li's achievements prove that we are going in the right direction,” Sun Jinfang, China's tennis chief, told the State-run China Daily newspaper.

An inspiration

The recent success of Chinese women's tennis has ignited a craze for the sport among young Chinese, particularly the urban elite. Hundreds of tennis schools have sprouted up across the country. “I think because now I am in the final, maybe many young players or children will see me and think: one day we can do the same or even better than her,” Ms. Li Na said.


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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 8:28:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/After-rebel-Li-Nas-success-Chinas-old-sporting-system-faces-questions/article15539863.ece

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