Set them free and they will bloom

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am


See that wasn't so bad, was it Beijing? Still, I am fairly certain that most of the 25 members of the Politburo were holding their collective breath as one of their countrywomen was being feted on an international sporting stage like never before. Li Na's victory in the women's championship at the French Open is the greatest sporting triumph in the history of modern China. It's unprecedented.

Yao Ming has proven to be an incredible ambassador during his injury-plagued NBA career. However, he has yet to win a championship and is not the only Chinese player to make the NBA. And the achievements of hurdler Liu Xiang as the first Chinese male to win a track and field Olympic gold medal in 2004 were certainly monumental. Still, there are hundreds of Olympic gold medallists in China. But in a country of 1.3 billion people, there is only one person who has ever captured a coveted tennis grand slam singles championship. Extrapolate that regionally if you wish. There are 3.8 billion people in Asia and only one has ever won a grand slam in singles. So excuse the hyperbole, but this is a big deal. And it's a fact the boys in Beijing know all too well.

It's well chronicled by now that Li was something of a rebellious soul. A young and promising tennis player, she grew so exasperated by the tentacles of the sports bureaucracy and their refusal to allow her to pick her own coach that she quit and went off to university to study journalism. She was eventually talked back into the game with scant assurances of some autonomy and rejoined the professional tour at 22.

Still, she could not help but see how the other players on tour kept all of their prize money while she was forced to give 65 per cent of her winnings back to the sports associations. It was just one of many issues which caused lingering resentment until late in 2008, when an experimental policy for a few select female tennis players called 'Fly Alone' was introduced. It allowed them to select their coach, make their own schedule and keep all but 12 per cent of their winnings. A little more than two years later the rebellious Li would stand on the winner's podium in Paris as the Chinese national anthem played for the entire world to see.

Her eyes grew misty and as the March of the Volunteers began she proudly belted out the opening lines: 'Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves! With our flesh and blood, let us build our new Great Wall!' Not only did Li know the words, she actually lived them. And how can you pay a higher tribute to your country than that? Of course, there would never have been a Li Na without a Yao Ming. When Yao went to play for the Houston Rockets he was the first mainland sportsperson to successfully take his act international and in the process demystify the Western conception of Chinese as robotic tools of propaganda.

As Yao's stature grew, so too did his desire for some basic freedoms. He used his position to implement a number of things, ranging from dictating the use of his non-playing time to speaking out against eating shark's fin soup because 'endangered species are our friends'. Through it all, he maintained a fierce and dutiful nationalistic pride.

It was a lesson not lost on Sun Jinfang. Sun was an integral member of the women's national volleyball team in the early 1980s, the first ever Chinese team to be successful on a global scale and still one of the country's most revered squads. It was Sun, in her position as secretary of the China Tennis Association, who compassionately reached out to Li in 2004 to get her back into tennis and it was Sun who implemented the 'Fly Alone' reform policy. She admits there were risks, but Li's success has proven it was the right call. 'This reform will serve as a good example for reforms in other sports,' Sun said.

Actually, this reform should serve as a good example for all other reforms. It's much bigger than sports. With the world's second biggest economy and a massive military build-up, it behooves the world to engage China. And with a staggering trade surplus last year with the United States of US$252 billion, it behooves China to engage the world as well.

In that respect, Yao Ming and Li Na will do more to open up the country than all the political dissidents imprisoned under dubious charges because unlike them, the tales of Yao and Li cannot be ignored domestically.

The day after her victory in France, Xinhua ran a frank story that was often uncomplimentary of the national sports associations entitled: 'Li Na, rebel with a racquet'. Still, in her greatest moment she remained a patriot at heart. So exhale Beijing, because your best and brightest have not forgotten you. Just remember though, when you allow a flower to breathe it blooms.