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The 80s children show talent for trouble

By Zhao Rui (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-03-14 14:08
The 80s children show talent for trouble
China's women's tennis No 1 Li Na, who last year became the first Chinese player to reach the quarterfinals of a grand slam tournament, is arguably the most famous of a growing number of outspoken athletes born in the 1980s. [China Daily]
Laptop, iPod and Blackberry phone: China's tennis chief Sun Jinfang was surprised at the contents of star player Li Na's bag as she packed up after the US Open last year.

"Everything is changing so fast," Sun, who led China's women's volleyball team to multiple world champions in the 1980s, said in an interview with China Daily after the September tournament. "Society is changing, and so are our sports teams and athletes. Sometimes I find dealing with them exhausting."

Like Sun, many Chinese coaches and officials are complaining that athletes born in the 1980s are moving away from the team spirit that first made China a sporting powerhouse.

"There was no 'me' in our team when I was a volleyball player some 20 years ago. The team was the only unit we had," Sun said. "I did everything for the team, not myself, and I think that was the key to our success."

However, the post-1980, One-Child Policy generation are thinking in a different way.

Unlike their parents and grandparents, they grew up in relative affluence and have endured little hardship. They missed the years of war, the rigors of postwar construction and the single-minded drive to catch up to the United States.

This generation are advocates of individualism, and from the point of view of the coaches, this means trouble.

Twenty-year-old Peng Shuai, Li Na's national teammate, raised a ruckus last year when she refused to get up at 7am for training at the team's base in Jiangmen, Guangdong Province.

"I simply cannot wake up in the morning and I should train at the time I want to," she told head coach Jiang Hongwei.

Officials swiftly got their revenge by making doubles specialist and early-riser Sun Tiantian her new roommate.

Li herself is no stranger to controversy. As well as quitting the team in 2001 and consistently complaining about the quality of coaching, she is also a famed shopaholic.

After splashing out $3,000 on clothes and shoes for her husband during the WTA Dubai Open last year, Li admitted to "going shopping as long as I have some spare time at tournaments."

"I like walking around markets and buying things for my husband and myself. It's quite enjoyable," she added.

The most notorious incident in recent months involved billiards player Zhou Mengmeng, 19, who accused a male teammate of sexually harassing her at December's Doha Asian Games before quitting the tournament.

Officials were angry that Zhou, a Gucci addict who has spoken of her collection of 30 bags, used the media to vent her anger and banned her from domestic competition.

But then her father, a wealthy snooker club owner from Shanghai, responded by filing a lawsuit. The dispute was resolved only when the lawsuit was dropped and Zhou issued a public apology.

The 80s children show talent for trouble
Billiards player Zhou Mengmeng, 19, caused a storm in China's sporting circles by claiming she was sexually harassed by a teammate during the 2006 Doha Asian Games. Later her father filed a lawsuit against the Multi-ball Administrative Center for blocking Zhou from international matches and embezzling training funds ahead of the Doha Games. [China Daily]
"The athletes from one-child families are self-oriented and lack discipline," Deng Yaping, a former table tennis world champion and now member of the Athletes Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told China Daily last week.

"They have very few opportunities to learn about society and suddenly when they become successful everything is wide open for them. This means it's easy to lose control."

Rising prizing money is another reason for the changing attitudes.

NBA All-star center Yao Ming tops the Forbes 2007 Chinese celebrity rich list with 260 million yuan ($34 million) and 110-meter hurdles world record holder Liu Xiang follows with 58 million yuan ($7.5 million).

Grand Slam champions Zheng Jie and Yan Zi ranked 12th after their combined prize money and sponsorship revenues topped 14 million yuan ($1.8 million).

"I couldn't image so much money when I played volleyball. I just wanted to contribute to my country and never thought about payback," said Sun. "But now there are too many temptations."

Team spirit

Liu Guoliang, head coach of national table tennis team, said team spirit is badly needed ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

"I think the spirit is the reason behind our success. You can win nothing without it," he said last year, after kicking Qiu Yike off the national team for getting drunk. "Some of them are selfish and are not mentally as strong as those born in the 1970s. I prefer personality during their matches, not in their social lives."

Another men's table tennis player, Chen Qi, landed himself in hot water with Liu when he kicked a chair and threw his bat after losing in the 2006 Asian Cup.

Authorities punished him by forcing him to spend a week in an army boot camp and another week in a poor rural area, to help him "realize how good his life is and see how poor people live their lives."

Liu later attempted to improve discipline by inviting the country's first astronaut Yang Liwei to lecture players.

Li Na, however, has said her reputation as a troublemaker is undeserved.

"I don't really like being called a maverick or anything like that," she told China Daily last year.

"I have never tried to challenge the authority of the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA), never. I've always felt we are a family and the CTA are my parents. How can I leave my family when trivial problems occur?"

"I am very calm now. I've realized I need to get used to the environment around me and be on my best behavior at all times if I want to keep on improving my tennis on tour."

Deng admitted the fault was not all with the young athletes.

"The problems are normal to some degree," she said. "They are young, famous and rich, you cannot avoid trouble in this situation.

"We need better management, different from the old ways. We need to tell them what is right and not just punish them."

"Those born after 1980 are very active and charismatic, so we have to improve ourselves before managing them," Xin Qingshan, former national short-track skating team, was quoted as saying on "We should try to protect them because the country invests so much in training top athletes. "