The Lin Conundrum

The Linsanity continued on Monday morning for basketball fans in Beijing and Taipei, and The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay writes that the phenomenon still feels real. Economist’s Banyan blog says the Jeremy Lin “conundrum” is a story of American soft power:

Mr Lin is, put plainly, precisely everything that China’s state sport system cannot possibly produce. If Mr Lin were to have been born and raised in China, his height alone might have denied him entry into China’s sport machine, as Time’s Hannah Beech points out: “Firstly, at a mere 6’3”—relatively short by basketball standards—Lin might not have registered with Chinese basketball scouts, who in their quest for suitable kids to funnel into the state sport system are obsessed with height over any individual passion for hoops.” Even when Mr Lin was still a young boy, one look at his parents, each of unremarkable stature, would have made evaluators sceptical. Ms Beech’s other half happens to be Brook Larmer, the author of the fascinating book “Operation Yao Ming”, which details how Chinese authorities contrived to create China’s most successful basketball star, Mr Yao, the product of tall parents who were themselves Chinese national basketball team players. The machine excels at identifying, processing and churning out physical specimens—and it does so exceedingly well for individual sports, as it will again prove in London this year. But it happens to lack the nuance and creativity necessary for team sport.

Then there is the fact that Mr Lin’s parents probably never would have allowed him anywhere near the Chinese sport system in the first place. This is because to put one’s child (and in China, usually an only child at that) in the sport system is to surrender that child’s upbringing and education to a bureaucracy that cares for little but whether he or she will win medals someday. If Mr Lin were ultimately to be injured or wash out as an athlete, he would have given up his only chance at an elite education, and been separated from his parents for lengthy stretches, for nothing. (One must add to this the problem of endemic corruption in Chinese sport that also scares away parents—Chinese football referee Lu Jun, once heralded as the “golden whistle” for his probity, was sentenced to jail last week as part of a massive match-fixing scandal). Most Chinese parents, understandably, prefer to see their children focus on schooling and exams.

In America, meanwhile, athletic excellence actually can open doors to an elite education, through scholarships and recruitment. Harvard does not provide athletic scholarships, but it does recruit players who also happen to be academic stars. There is no real equivalent in China.

The piece also discusses the political problem posed by Lin’s Taiwanese roots, which the Chinese state media has attempted to paint over with a more mainland-focused narrative. The Global Times sought to downplay the importance of Lin’s identity altogether in a Monday op-ed:

The Chinese public is indeed yearning for more stars like Yao Ming. A developing China calls for more talents in every field. But splitting hair over Lin’s ethnicity is not helping.

No doubt the Chinese sports system has problems in creating more superstars, however, the Lin fever in the mainland also partly results from a cultural inferiority complex. Stars who are internationally recognized are more likely to be worshipped at home.

China needs to become more confident. Jeremy Lin is an excellent NBA player, he deserves the following of Chinese fans due to his superb skills, but not necessarily because of his Chinese roots.

Separately, Lin has even managed to work his way into the tabloid rumor mill during an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America. The ugly side of the Lin sensation worked its way into the news media over the weekend as well, with ESPN apologizing for an offensive headline that appeared on its mobile web site and repeated by a news anchor.

See also previous CDT coverage of Jeremy Lin.

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