A goodwill basketball game between the Georgetown University Hoyas and a Chinese team, the Bayi Rockets, ended in a fierce, chair-and-water-bottle tossing brawl, on Thursday night. The game had been timed to coincide with Vice President Joe Biden’s state visit; Biden had watched the Hoyas play an earlier (and uneventful) game with the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons. The Hoyas are at the start of a 10-day trip that the State Department has been billing as an “example of sports diplomacy that strengthens ties between the two countries’ peoples,” says the New York Times. The Bayi rockets are China’s most popular team.
Given the recent tensions over economic and other issues between China and the US, one can’t help seeing the on-court fight as a sign of how the two countries are really feeling about each other, for all the public statements of politicians: Just today, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao sounded a “confident note” about the US economy.
The Los Angeles Times gives this description of the Hoyas-Bayi Rockets fight:
Early in the game, the atmosphere turned tense when Bayi forward Xu Zhonghao yelled at [Georgetown coach John Thompson III] in English, “How can you let your players play like that?” Then, after Georgetown guard Jason Clark objected to a hard foul by another Bayi player, Hu Ke, the benches emptied and fights erupted across the court. Fans jumped into the action.
The video captured an unidentified Chinese man in a white polo shirt and khaki shorts stomping a Georgetown player on the floor. Gene Wang of the Washington Post, one of the few foreign reporters in attendance, wrote that one fan grabbed a stanchion, while an unidentified player pushed Georgetown’s Aaron Bowen through a partition, then repeatedly punched him while sitting on his chest.
The Georgetown coach pulled his players off the court, ending the game with 9 minutes 32 seconds left and the score tied, 64-64.
At least in the videos, there was no evidence that Chinese officials tried to restrain their players, several of whom were captured on the footage wielding chairs in midthrow.
An American expatriate who lives in Beijing, Sarah Burton, said that Chinese spectators threw trash and whatever they could find and that security “wearing ill-fitting uniforms, came in late and pretended to help, but stood in the doorway and did nothing.”
Thompson issued a statement after the game:
“Tonight, two great teams played a very competitive game that unfortunately ended after heated exchanges with both teams. We sincerely regret that this situation occurred. We remain grateful for the opportunity our student-athletes are having to engage in a sport they love here in China, while strengthening their understanding of a nation we respect and admire at Georgetown University.’’
Thompson’s statement that the game “strengthen[ed] their understanding of a nation” might say more than meets the eye. The Bayi Rockets team is owned by the Chinese military and the training, supervision and surveillance of athletes in China is rigorously scrutinized by the government, as the New York Times reports. Athletes like Li Na, who won this year’s French Open, are expected to contribute 65 percent of their earnings to the Chinese government; Li will only pay 12 percent, after declining a “plum government job” and $92,000 prize from the provincial Hubei government. NBA star Yao Ming has had to give as much as 8 percent of his lifetime earnings to the Chinese government. China has some 20,000 elite athletes in its training system year-round, says the Washington Post, which also notes that “sports in China are an essential expression of governmental ambition and prestige.”
But athletes pay a harsh price in addition to give a percentage of their earnings to the Chinese government, who insists that such is required to pay back for years of training and support:
… [Elite athletes'] ascendancy begins in grade schools, where students are subject to corporal punishment from coaches, and those who don’t reach the required physical standards aren’t allowed to go on to higher schools. One western correspondent in Beijing, Simon Tisdall of The Guardian, characterizes China’s sports machine as a “culture of pride and aggressively nationalistic assertiveness.”
The New York Times points out that, for some athletes, “… the Olympic rings become shackles that bind them for years in indentured servitude to a government that frequently neglects their scholastic education and ignores their injuries while taking a sizable cut of their earnings, all in the name of national pride.” Some 240,000 retired athletes suffer from injuries, poverty and unemployment including gold-medal gymnast Zhang Shangwu, who was found begging on a Beijing street last month.
Selected at age 5 by the Hebei provincial government, Zhang won two gold medals before he injured his Achilles’ tendon during practice in 2002. He was forced by his coach to continue training. Sports officials then denied his request to study academic subjects and finally parted ways with him in 2005 with a pension of 38,000 renminbi, or $4,750, he said. “It was barely enough for food and the clothes on my back,” he told The Beijing News. Unskilled and unable to work because of his injury, he sold his medals for the equivalent of $13 and then was caught stealing. After being released from prison, he turned to panhandling.
On hearing of his plight, a billionaire Chinese entrepreneur has offered him a position as a personal trainer. But Zhang’s must not be the only story to end with such a fall from Olympic glory to panhandling in China’s capital.
After Thursday’s Hoyas-Rockets fight, Chinese fans themselves have responded with dismay about their team’s behavior, says the New York Times:
“Does the Bayi team think they are better at Chinese kungfu than basketball and that is why they are desperate to show it off,” said a Sina Weibo user named JF1113.
“I just don’t get it that China is fighting other people all the time. And they lose the games too,” said another user named QimaDdou.
Another, nego_lu, called players in China “poorly educated.”
Noting that every sports game in China is “politically loaded,” the Washington Post comments, “we will wonder if the fight exposed more than just a simmering rivalry between ballplayers.”
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Photo of Georgetown playing Tulane by Tulane Public Relations