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The Plight Of The Chinese Sportsperson

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Chinese woman footballer Sun Wen made her debut appearance for the national team at the age of 17. She played 13 years for the China. During that period, she was part of the team which won the Olympic Silver medal in the 1996 Atlanta games, took part in the first four women’s FIFA World Cups, won the Golden Boot and Golden Ball for the 1999 World Cup (where China finished runners up), and shared the FIFA Player of the Century award with American Michelle Akers.

What is Wen doing now? At 33, Wen is washing her own kits. China Youth Daily reported it initially and an English report on it can be found in Malaysian The Star:

Sun Wen and her teammates are accommodated in rooms no more than six square metres with dirty sheets on tiny beds, malfunctioning television sets and air-conditioning and a leaking toilet, according to a report in the China Youth Daily.

“I buy a plastic basin to do my laundry wherever I go,” the 33-year-old Sun Wen told the newspaper. “I’m afraid I’ll have to bring my own bedclothes next time.”

Wen’s life was going well till a few years ago. She was signed in 2001 by the Atlanta Beat of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and living the life her talent deserved. WUSA, of course, started with much fanfare roping in the top plight women’s footballers in the world in 2001 before folding up shortly thereafter in 2003, but that is another story. Wen was then recalled home to China. She joined the Fudan University in Shanghai, China to study journalism and looked forward, rather than back at this crucial juncture of her life. In December 2005, Wen announced her comeback and returned to the women’s national team.

If an extra ordinary talent in Wen reaches the situation she has, why would any one take up or want to take up football in China, at least as far as women are concerned? What about the situation of the men’s football team and sport persons in general in China? China expects world standard performers. It is focussing on building young sports stars to perform internationally. But why should some one follow sport in the country seeing the situation some stars find themselves in?

A few weeks ago, news emerged of former weight lifting champion, Zou Chunlan. At 36, Zou is nearly destitute and working in bath houses. Reports Yahoo:

Zou Chunlan, 36, won several gold medals in China’s National Games between 1987 and 1993 but following retirement was unable to find steady work due in part to poor health she blames on drugs taken during her athletic career.

“I said to my coach… I’m now always growing a beard, during training I was always made to take a ‘power supplement’, now I’ve become like this, you won’t get me work, what am I to do?” she was quoted by the Beijing News newspaper as saying.

“I was once very proud of these medals but now they only give me painful memories.”

I am not going to go the drug story path as that is an often repeated story. Also, it is a story which is speculated upon about many countries and not just China with the degrees of usage varying. What I am concerned about is the Chinese sportsperson. Often times lack of money in a sport is linked to lack of success or lack of demand among the general public ceasing to bring sponsorship to the sport and it’s athletes.

In China, the demand for sport is there as people love sports in the country. There is even the success, as shown by the tremendous achievements of Wen and so many others. The recognizable example would obviously be Yao Ming and his NBA success. Why then, does the money not come to the sport or the sports persons? Things are changing in China, but they aren’t obviously changing enough. Else stories such as the two stated would not have arisen in the first place.

The good news is that with the Internet and the speed at which information travels, knowledge increases. How else could I have known about all this? How else could you be reading this piece? The internet is a medium impossible to get rid off completely. The China Youth Daily, which reported this for example, is the first independent newspaper existing in China. As information travels, questions are asked. People become answerable when earlier they weren’t. Changes occur. I hope changes occur more swiftly though.

Additional links:

Profile of Wen from the official World Cup site ahead of the 2003 World Cup.

Another news item previewing Wen before the same tournament.

CNNSI announcing Wen’s deal with Atlanta Beat and Wen’s comments back then.
Wen’s profile from Fifa.com.

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About Pratyush Khaitan

  • There was a great feature in ESPN the Magazine about a Chinese basketball team barnstorming the West Coast of the U.S. playing semipro teams in hopes of becoming a power in 2008. Seems like they like the dorm lifestyle while they were in California, but it was unclear how one team — where only a couple players have a shot at making the national team — was going to make a difference with experience against C-level American basketball players.