The Chinese Basketball Association suspended and condemned Fan Bin, far right, for his violent behavior; the coach was reinstated after he promised to change his ways.
By DAN LEVIN
BEIJING — Perhaps it was the latest bruise turning purple, or those final flecks of spit wiped away while walking off the court, or the curses echoing off the bleachers. Whatever the reason, the members of China’s national junior basketball team decided one day in April that enough was enough. So they wrote down their plea in teenager scrawl, signed their names with ink-stained fingerprints and sent it to the Chinese Basketball Association.
“Coach Fan Bin has repeatedly insulted our team over the past three years by beating and verbally abusing us, and we can no longer bear his treatment,” read the letter, which was swiftly leaked to the news media. “We submit this protest to the central officials and request that he be replaced.”
Chinese athletes, once dutiful ambassadors who obediently spent their lives in pursuit of patriotic glory, are no longer willing to just grin and bear it. A series of recent controversies is shedding light on how young athletes are beginning to expose abuse, challenge exploitation and reject official interference in their careers — risky moves in a country where there is no separation of sport and state. Their struggle is a microcosm of the clash in contemporary China between the push for personal liberty and the grip of an authoritarian government.
Like a growing number of Chinese, athletes have found a voice on the Internet and in the news media, publicizing conflicts and complaints the government would rather keep quiet.
“What’s happening now is the younger generation of athletes has so many options to communicate, through microblogs and social networking, that they want to stand up and speak out,” said Jiang Yi, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated China.
Yet athletes face a formidable opponent: the state-run sports system — a bureaucracy of training schools, teams and government organizations that selects and coaches more than 250,000 young people for the purpose of winning gold medals.
The system offers many athletes the chance to bring honor to their families and country through competition. But some of these athletes find that the Olympic rings become shackles that bind them for years in indentured servitude to a government that frequently neglects their scholastic education and ignores their injuries while taking a sizable cut of their earnings, all in the name of national pride.
It is a recipe that leaves many athletes unprepared to compete in the real world once they can no longer perform in a stadium. According to the state news media, 240,000 retired athletes suffer from injuries, poverty and unemployment.
Zhang Shangwu, a former champion gymnast for China, was discovered begging on a Beijing street.
One of those is Zhang Shangwu, 28, a former gymnastics champion who was discovered last month begging on a Beijing street. Selected at age 5 by the Hebei provincial government, Zhang won two gold medals before he injured his Achilles’ tendon during practice in 2002. He was forced by his coach to continue training. Sports officials then denied his request to study academic subjects and finally parted ways with him in 2005 with a pension of 38,000 renminbi, or $4,750, he said. “It was barely enough for food and the clothes on my back,” he told The Beijing News. Unskilled and unable to work because of his injury, he sold his medals for the equivalent of $13 and then was caught stealing. After being released from prison, he turned to panhandling.
The ensuing publicity of Zhang’s plight fueled outrage against the sports system and drew sympathy from the public, prompting a Chinese billionaire to offer Zhang a job as a personal trainer.
Success is also fueling rebellion within the athletic ranks among those talented enough to challenge the system. The tennis star Li Na, 29, was forced to choose between her career and her country in 2008 when she left the Chinese national team after sports officials refused to relinquish control of her life.
“When I was on the national team, the state picked my coach and chose which tournaments I played in,” she said in a phone interview. “Now that I’m on my own, I can make my own decisions.”
In June, Li won the French Open singles title, becoming the first Asian national to win a Grand Slam tournament. To reward her, the Hubei provincial government gave her a prize worth $92,000 and offered her a plum government job, which she declined, saying she wanted to focus on playing tennis.
Now independent, Li must pay up to only 12 percent of her winnings to the government, much less than the 65 percent normally required.
While a small number of athletes have been able to escape the sports system, others not so lucky are voicing dissent as they see professional sports stars gain fame and fortune, prompting a crackdown by government censors.
A day after Li won the French Open, Chen Yibing, the captain of China’s men’s gymnastic team and an Olympic gold medalist, announced on his blog that he was “jealous” of the advantages enjoyed by professional athletes.
“You get to compete for yourself, no need to carry anything on your shoulders,” he wrote. State-supported athletes, he continued, get to compete internationally only in world championships and in the Olympics. “How many ‘four years’ does one athlete have? If we are successful, is it because of the state sport system? If we fail after four years of training, what has happened to our hard work?”
While Li’s title in a major tournament brought her public praise from the Chinese government, her go-it-alone success was also a loss of face for the Communist Party. Only two days after her victory, the Central Propaganda Department issued a news media directive “to stop hyping Li Na’s win.”
But athletes are not so easily stifled. When the national youth basketball team’s complaints against its coach gained notice among the public, the Chinese Basketball Association quickly moved to contain the scandal by suspending the coach and condemning his violent behavior. Weeks later he was quietly reinstated, only after promising to change his ways. The protest appears to have had the desired effect.
A member of the Tsinghua University basketball team who played against the junior team before and after the controversy said the coach’s behavior had “completely transformed.”
Corporal punishment has long been used by coaches and teachers in China to instill a strict code of discipline. But this rite of passage is increasingly controversial, much to the dismay of sports officials.
“Coaches treat their players like their children, and it’s completely normal for parents to hit their kids,” Bai Xilin, the C.B.A.’s chairman of game operations, said in an interview.
Bai acknowledged that the old guard has trouble relating to younger players who have grown up in a more open and prosperous era. But he dismissed the players’ complaints as evidence of a generation gone spoiled. “Kids these days are unable to eat bitterness,” he said. “They want the results but they aren’t willing to endure the hard times.”
Rather than condemn the coach’s behavior, Bai criticized the players, who he believes betrayed the sports system by going to the news media with their protest rather than trusting the issue would be solved internally.
“There is a lot of tension within a family but nobody should ever seek to expose those problems to the outside world,” he said.
Change is coming along slowly, said the tennis star Li, thanks in part to the growing presence of foreign coaches. “They have an influence on athletes who see there is another way of doing things,” she said.
When Bob Donewald Jr., a former N.B.A. assistant, began coaching the Shanghai Sharks two years ago, one of the first things he did was end the basketball team’s curfew and bed check, which are common practices within the sports system.
“I felt we should treat the players like men and see if they act like men,” he said.
Now the coach of the national team, Donewald was ordered to keep the curfew, but he has won the respect of the players and sports officials by coaching through communication, rather than intimidation.
“I think I’ve shown those guys that you can grill them hard one minute and put an arm around them the next,” he said. “You don’t have to crush them the whole time.”
If the government is slowly loosening its clutch on athletes’ professional lives, it is less willing to give up financial control. Both professional and Olympic athletes must hand over part of their earnings to sports officials, who say athletes need to repay the system for years of training. Yao Ming was forced to give as much as 8 percent of his total N.B.A. career earnings to the Chinese government, which then sold his image rights without his permission to Coca-Cola, despite his endorsement deal with Pepsi.
Sponsorships deals have become one of the government’s favorite ways to maximize control. Even those who never went through the sports system can find themselves barred from competition if they refuse to grease palms by promoting government-endorsed brands. That is what happened in April to one of China’s top BMX riders, Shen Jian, at the X Games Asia in Shanghai.
Shen, a tattooed 23-year-old who taught himself to ride as a teenager and swept the sport’s competitions in China last year, recently signed an exclusive endorsement deal with the apparel company Vans. But the government-run China Extreme Sports Association prohibited him from competing at the X Games unless he wore a jersey emblazoned with the official Chinese sponsor’s logo, which would have nullified his Vans contract. To further coerce Shen, the association barred him from the games even after ESPN, one of the event organizers, allowed him to compete as a “wild card.” Rather than sacrifice his endorsement, however, he refused to cooperate.
CESA does not train or finance athletes, but Liu Qing, the association’s deputy secretary general, was unapologetic about blocking athletes, even though their income is at stake. “If they want to represent their country and get exposure, they need us,” she said. “For them, being selected is an honor because it means they are the best in China.”
Athletes like Shen, who receive no state support and depend on endorsement deals for their livelihood, say the government’s actions are simply extortion dressed as patriotism, especially because the association pockets most sponsorship profits. “CESA taught me nothing,” he said. “I don’t need to wear their clothing so they can make money and exploit me.”
That independent ethos drives China’s BMX athletes, who are self-made and have little patience for government meddling in an increasingly popular sport built on their passion and skill. “We riders created this community, not CESA,” Shen said. “The association’s only power comes from the Communist Party.”
Adam Century contributed reporting.