Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine, and is author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love

June 7th, 2011 11:41 AM

Tennis Anyone? What Li Na's Grand Slam Win Tells Us About China

Crossposted from The Nation's blog

The Women's Tennis Association could not be happier today. With her victory in the French Open on Saturday, Li Na became the first Chinese tennis player to win a major singles championship. Her historic triumph brings an unprecedented opportunity to market the sport to China’s perceived fan base of 1.3 billion people. According to Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob, Li's finals match against Francesca Schiavone drew a Chinese audience of 116 million.

The press has compared Li to basketball player Yao Ming because she carries a wink and an edge that could stand to make her popular beyond the tennis crowd. As CNN-Beijing's Xiaoni Chen wrote somewhat primly, “She has a tattoo, has dyed her hair many different colors and has even been known to yell at her husband in public.”  When speaking about her victory over Schiavone, Li said in halting English, “Of course I was nervous. But I didn’t want to show the opponent. I was a little bit cheating.” By “cheating” she meant “acting.”

She's funny, smart, and good enough to contend in every Grand Slam tournament. Like Yao, she could become that holiest of holy grails in sports marketing: a brand. The clay had not even been smoothed on the courts of Roland Garros before the Wall Street Journal was asking the question, “As China celebrates Li Na’s victory in the French Open the next question is how she—and the world’s biggest brands—will cash in on her celebrity. Which labels will she represent? How will she be marketed? And who will pay the big money for her endorsement?”

The irony at work should be readily apparant. In the Eastern Bloc, athletics was seen as a way for athletes to forge individual identities. Often times, as in the case with Czech tennis great Martina Navratilova or Cuban pitcher Orlando Hernandez, it meant defecting to the West so they could reach greener pastures and flower freely.

Now Li seems set to bloom: and the fertlizer is coming in bags labeled Nike and Rolex. Rolex is Li’s biggest sponsor and as The Wall Street Journal explained, “A Rolex watch is a status symbol among China’s wealthy set.”  As for Nike, Li’s entourage was all wearing canary-yellow Nike shirts that read “Achieve Yourself” in Mandarin lettering. The savvy Li pointed out in her victory-press conference that Nike had produced very few of these shirts for the Chinese market. She said, “I think now they should make more. A lot of fans would like to have these shirts.”

But before the new Li Na Rolexes and designer swoosh-wear roll off the assembly line and into the eager arms of consumers in the People’s Republic, we should take a moment and see what this actually tells us about 21st century China: the great economic partner and political bogey-man of the United States. Along with explosive economic growth over the last decade, class divisions in China have sharpened dramatically. This has been reflected in a tennis boom, seen as the symbolic sport that marks you as “elite”. In 1988 1 million people played tennis in China. Today that number stands at 14 million. Playing tennis is a sign that a family has status and it differentiates the new elites from those migrating from province to province struggling to survive. An article by Reuters published just last Thursday highlights this reality: “High-rise towers are under construction and luxury cars roll past bars and cafes catering to the city's entrepreneurial class, many of whom have become rich from real estate and stock market speculation. But inside the town's factories, it's another story.”

This “other story” was typified by an explosion last month at an iPad polishing factory where three workers died and 15 were injured. The catastrophe made international news. But accidents of the sort are "business as usual" in China. "Business as usual" in 2010 meant 360,000 industrial accidents across the country that were directly connected to the deaths of nearly 80,000 people. The brutal realities of "business as usual" has also spurred thousands of strikes and factory occupations over the last several years, even as workers risk imprisonment, torture, and death for their militancy. Independent unions, factory councils, and pitched battles in the streets are as much a feature of modern China as the McDonald's on the corner.

We can cheer the beauty and artistry of Li Na’s ability on the court. But please don’t call it a victory for China. Part of this remarkable country will cheer and play more tennis. A very separate and unequal part will die making those canary-yellow shirts: the last thing they see being that market-tested exhortation: “Achieve Yourself.” These contrasting realities are a recipe for the kind of social conflict for which Nike has no slogan.

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law Donna Smith Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? Donna Smith We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa Nick Turse Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch Donna Smith The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Enron billionaire John Arnold thinks everyone should believe him when he says we've got to cut pensions because he's so incredibly rich: John...

Mar 5th
4:20 PM
Read More

More in David Sirota's continuing series on the billionaire takeover of PBS: More PBS conflict woes as activists move to eject David Koch from board of...

Mar 3rd
12:35 PM
Read More

Ukraine: One ‘Regime Change’ Too Many? Ray McGovern Is “regime change” in Ukraine the bridge too far for the neoconservative...

Mar 2nd
9:25 PM
Read More

Latest from David Sirota on Enron billionaire John Arnold smuggling anti-pension propaganda into "neutral" institutions like PBS and now, the...

Mar 1st
12:58 PM
Read More

Second Guessing a Life: US Health Care System Robs Security and Human Dignity Donna Smith The dysfunction of the US health care system...

Feb 27th
1:40 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles