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Li Na’s Victory Stirs Debate Over China's State-Sponsored Sports Program

  • Stephanie Ho

China's Li Na poses next to the Eiffel Tower after defeating Italy's Francesca Schiavone in their women's final match for the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, June 4, 2011, in Paris.

China's Li Na poses next to the Eiffel Tower after defeating Italy's Francesca Schiavone in their women's final match for the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, June 4, 2011, in Paris.

People across China are still reveling in Chinese tennis champion Li Na’s victory Saturday at the French Open. After becoming the first Asian woman to win a Grand Slam tournament, Chinese online discussion groups turned to analyzing her decision three years ago to leave behind the state-sponsored sports program and train on her own.

As Li won the French Open on live television, Chinese sports announcers during the late-night broadcast were jubilant. Her picture graced the front pages of most Chinese newspapers Sunday, and by Monday, discussion had turned to analyzing the training that led her to victory.

Pros and cons

Tennis coach Wang Jun, who organizes a competitive tennis league in Beijing and runs an Internet site devoted to tennis, says he has seen many online comments saying Li was only able to win a major tennis tournament after she left the state-run sports administration in 2008. He says that kind of characterization is unfair.

Wang says he thinks the reason Li was able to win the French Open is precisely because of her participation in the state system, not in spite of it. He says the state’s investment provided better conditions that helped Li advance on the road to victory.

State-run sports

Under China's state-run sports system, children are identified at a young age for their athletic potential, and trained rigorously for a specific sport.

At the end of 2008, Li and some of China's other top tennis players signed an agreement with Chinese authorities in which they could freely choose their coaches and decide which matches to play. One important result of the new agreement is that players keep a larger percentage of their winnings than before.

Li raised Chinese hopes when she became the first Chinese player to reach a tennis Grand Slam final, at the Australian Open, in January.


Back to China?

At a meeting with reporters after winning the French Grand Slam tournament, Li said she is not planning to return to China until after Wimbledon, which is in London later this month.

“I didn’t have time [to go] back to China right now," Li explained. "I will [go] back to China after Wimbledon. So, if I didn’t do well at Wimbledon, maybe people forget me already.This is a tough time.”

Athletic power

As China grows economically, its profile as a world athletic power is also rising. Tennis coach Wang points out that Chinese athletes won the most gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Wang says although China won 51 gold medals, many people in China do not remember who won for which event. But, he is certain that in the case of Li Na, people will remember her name.

Wang says whatever happens to Li in the future, her career will be even more closely watched and hotly debated. He adds that her victory also will influence the development of tennis in China, and encourage many more Chinese to pick up a racket.

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