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Sports in China: The Golden Journey to blossom

By Li Zhenyu (special to
Updated: 2010-06-25 16:04
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At the time when China was still on its journey to blossom, embracing the world with open attitudes, there was one man who unnoticingly and unconsciously imported western cultures to his home. Western sports were one of the cultures that he brought.

This 40-something man who was a huge sports addict and amateur table tennis player was then working as a senior diplomat. During his tenure in Barbados as the acting ambassador in 1987, he became acquainted with a British diplomatic officer who happened to be a hardcore sports enthusiast too. Although, for Chinese diplomats in those days, socializing with foreigners was restricted to a certain degree, sports, a less political and easier topic for conversation, facilitated the friendship between the two, and, in part, bridged the two nations.

In the beginning, among their most-talked about topics came the heavily western-favored boxing and soccer, yet as time went by, the word "Ping Pong" started to frequently appear in the two diplomats' conversations.

The British diplomat showed the Chinese how to box, and the latter, who was once the table tennis champion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China, in turn, helped the Brit to hone his craft in Ping Pong. Interestingly, the ping pong ball, interconnecting the two opposing partners intermittently, was branded "Double Happiness Sports," known as "Hong Shuang Xi" in Chinese, a nationally noted Chinese sports brand. From a business perspective, in as early as the late 1980s, could we regard it as a case of our local sports brand going global?

Because of his dedication to his country and work, the Chinese diplomat chose to marry at a comparatively senior age and fathered one son. This boy was born to be a troublemaker who always whipped other kindergartners purely for the purpose of having fun. When he grew older, he got immersed in a sea of videocassettes consisting of sports programs and movies brought by his father from the western lands. Those included ESPN FNF, the movie Rocky, and a series of sports documentary films, among others.

One day, when this naughty boy came back from primary school, he found himself totally captivated by the scene shown on the television, two muscular warrior trading punches under the flame of the crowds. It was one of the classics in sports history - the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier trilogy.

Two decades later, in front of his TV screen, the Ali - Frazier fight was still on, same fight, same place, but not the same spectator. After years of collaborating with some of the world's biggest names in the sports journalism industry as a contributing columnist whilst writing bilingually for China's mainstream press, following in his father's footsteps, he turned himself into a cross-cultural messenger. He finished the evolution from a naughty boy to a professional sports observer who is presently penning this "Golden Sports" column.

The title - Golden Sports is a pun that suggests two distinct, yet correlative meanings. It both represents China's golden glory in competitive sports itself and the golden opportunity the nation's infant sports industry is in place to catch hold of.

On the surface, competitive sports and sports business fall under two diverse categories, for instance, China is, as manifested in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a global dominating force in competitive sports, yet the Asian Giant's sports industry is still at its infancy, taking up mere 0.7% of GDP last year, compared with America's ratio of 7% for that year.

In essence, however, the aforementioned two categories are intertwined and tend to interact with each other. The reason why China's competitive sports, or to say Olympic sports, and sports industry diverged at the two extreme development levels is that China's former system restrained the development of professional sports. Although China has fostered such so called professional sports leagues as the CSL (China Football Association Super League) and CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) for quite a number of years, up till now, professional sports, in a very real sense, have never been in existence on the nation's soil. That is mainly due to the environment in which China's professional sports evolve, a sensitive, yet appalling topic that I intend to break down in a subsequent column.

Therefore, the "Golden Sports" is conceived to be a column that recounts the sporting scene from a commercial perspective, a column that combines sports with gold, money and business.

Unlike the regular column which is oftentimes crafted by one specific author and can sometimes be strongly opinionated, the Golden Sports may not only offer you a satisfying reading experience, but also inspire you to expand your horizons by attracting some of the world's foremost industrialist, insiders, authors and, on occasion, champions, among other practitioners from the four corners of the globe. Some hot off the western mainstream presses, some cool from the wires in the east. It seems only natural that this column, be graced by some of the greatest minds in the business, it is not for preteens.

I consider penning this column for China Daily to be the next best thing and a fortune to explore new frontiers and deliver hard-hitting material to its online readers.

At the turn of the year 2010, China's GDP growth rate reached an astounding 8.7%, and was forecasted by the World Bank to be at 9.5% for the year. While other economic superpowers such as the United States and United Kingdom barely struggle out of depression, China has recorded significant GDP growth and is on the verge of surpassing Japan as the world's second largest economy in the coming years. Not only does China become the first major economy to recover from the global recession, but the Asian Giant is also leading the world out of it. The world's most populous country is, in real sense, growing to be a major player in the world economy.

"China" has spread out across the headlines of western mainstream press as a hot word.

A little less than two years ago, in an afternoon as hot as today, China struck gold on home turf. The Eastern Dragon closed its 51-gold Olympic solo show, dumping the two sports superpowers - America and Russia in gold medal tally and emerging as the new dominating force in competitive sports.

Maintaining its winning momentum both in and out of the Olympic stadiums, China has set sights on reaching full blossom in a wider sports context.

The Guide For Accelerating The Development Of Sports Industry, the first-ever official document referring to the development of sports industry that was distributed on a national level, was formally issued by the General Office of the State Council on March, 24, 2010. It specifically addressed that by the year 2020, sports businesses and conglomerates of international caliber must have been nurtured and sports brands with distinguishing local features and global influence developed.

It was a milestone that marked a whole new chapter in the history of Chinese sports development.

With China's growing economic power and its vast pool of potential athletic talent, can the nation that produced NBA superstar Yao Ming also generate the next super sports brands such as the ESPN and Nike? Well, it is all part of the golden journey to blossom.

The author is a contributing columnist for a variety of the world's leading industry publications. He can be reached at