Li Na paid price for being honest

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am


Win or lose, the day's work is not over for a top professional player after a match. Afterwards comes the obligatory post-game interview, in which the player must keep thinking on his or her feet to appear gracious in victory or defeat and avoid controversy. Ask French open champion Li Na, who has been pilloried online by compatriots for a lack of patriotism after reported comments at a press conference at a tournament in California.

In saying she competed as an individual and not as a representative of China, Li was stating a fact of the circuit. But she has paid the price for being honest. Because China's legion of world and Olympic champions owes a lot to the state sports system, it is understandable if some compatriots feel affronted by Li's remarks.

She was quoted as saying: 'Many people think, 'Oh, maybe she is the next Yao Ming or something'. I think I am just a tennis athlete. I'm not here for the country ... I am just doing my job ...'

Li and Yao, the recently retired NBA basketball star, do have a lot in common. They both broke free of the state sports system and popularised their sport with millions of Chinese. The authorities can claim some credit for not standing in their way. Yao was allowed an exception to the rule that athletes moving overseas must turn over at least half their income to the authorities, and Li led a successful battle for tennis stars to have their own coaches and retain more of their earnings. As a result, Li and Yao became role models to a new generation of mainlanders and China's image is the richer for it. Li's independence and outspokenness is credited with getting her to where she is now, but grace, good humour and sportsmanship in both victory and defeat are also qualities that have served her well. She may have been undiplomatic on this occasion, but she remains one of her country's most admired ambassadors abroad.