Li Na

Li Na's win in Australia triggers debate over athletes' training system

Achievement of temperamental and rebellious tennis star leads to calls for review of mainland's approach to sport

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 3:06am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 3:06am

The victory of Li Na in the Australian Open not only focused the attention of the media and bloggers on the glamour of the tennis star, but has also sparked a debate over whether the system for training the nation's athletes is in need of an overhaul.

The media was abuzz with Li's success. Constant updates were given of her match in Melbourne, while many mainlanders watched the final broadcast live.

As soon as Li had secured victory in straight sets, congratulatory messages poured on to Sina Weibo.

The posts quickly turned to a discussion of Li's style, which mainland media have often described as rebellious because of her short temper, her outspokenness and her attempts to distance herself from the mainland's government-funded sports system.

The Chinese Basketball Association mockingly said on its Sina Weibo account that Li's English was "excellent" as she did not speak in Chinese during her victory speech. "She has almost forgotten Chinese," the posting said.

Mainstream media then turned their focus on the upbringing of the tennis star, trying to figure out what has made Li such a successful player. Extensive details were given of her life, saying she often shouted at her husband, Jiang Shan, and that she had thought of quitting the sport because of the stress and pressure she faced after winning the French Open in 2011.

Things began to improve, the reports said, after the Argentinian Carlos Rodriguez became her coach, helping Li to control her temper.

"Li Na is more stable and mature," a commentary in the Guangzhou-based Information Times said. "Li used to make people around her feel tense because of her stress, but now she always bears in mind that taking part in a competition is something to be enjoyed, no matter if she wins or not."

Some media outlets have suggested that the secret of Li's success is that she does not believe she is playing for the glory of China, an idea which is forcibly imposed on many other Chinese athletes.

In 2008, she became one of only a handful of sportsmen and women on the mainland to be freed from the nation's rigid sports structure, giving her the freedom to choose her own coach, schedules, support staff and to retain most of her prize money.

Many athletes on the mainland join sport schools at an early age before they are recruited by local and national teams. They enjoy state-funded coaching, training and accommodation, but also have their careers controlled by bureaucrats. A commentary by the Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News said it was unsure whether Li should be named as the greatest female athlete in China, but she was definitely the most controversial.

"She has never said anything like 'I want to thank my country' when she collects a trophy," the commentary said. But her "dissociation" from the sports establishment had enabled her to "reach a height that no other Chinese person has achieved''.

The China Youth Daily said in two commentaries that Li's victory in Australia had triggered calls for reform of the mainland's athlete training system.

Deploying a huge amount of resources to train selected athletes with national glory as their top priority has enabled sportsmen and women to receive outstanding training, but has failed to motivate them to fulfil their personal ambitions.

Li's best performance was a fourth place in the Olympics before she was given the autonomy to decide on her own coach. That "probably would have been the peak of Li's career had she remained within the establishment", the commentary said.

"No one can force Li to represent the nation or her hometown when taking part in any competition. She has found her own path to realise her dream on her own stage," it said.