Holding up more than half the sky

Trailblazing Li Na has done more to show her country in a positive light than any politico could ever imagine

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 February, 2014, 9:18pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 February, 2014, 9:18pm

Let's be honest China, Mao Zedong got a lot of things wrong. You know it and so do I. There was one thing though that he was somewhat enlightened on and that was the significant role women should play in Chinese society. He was one of the first leaders anywhere to call for equal pay for equal work and it was Mao who once famously opined, "women hold up half the sky".

However, in hindsight, the so-called father of modern China may have been slightly off on that one as well because these days it seems Chinese women hold up significantly more than half the sky and nowhere is that more evident than in the world of sports and in particular tennis.

It's a simple truth that was reinforced again last week when Li Na won her second grand slam by capturing the Australian Open. She also captivated and charmed a huge international audience with her radiant personality and disarming wit and has done more to show her country in a positive light than any politico could ever dream of.

I can't help thinking that the one-child policy implemented in 1979, which overwhelmingly favours males and has created a class of entitled "Little Emperors", has hampered the development of men's sport at the highest international levels where the intense sacrifice and discipline necessary to succeed is imperative.

She did things her way and is the embodiment of the 21st century mainland woman

Sweat and sacrifice is not something associated with little emperors and over the past 35 years men's sport in China has been something of a joke. In a soccer-mad country of 1.38 billion people, the national team have qualified for one World Cup and sit at 92, well behind Sierra Leone, Oman and the Congo. With his towering size and rare athleticism, former NBA star Yao Ming is something of an outlier because other than him and Olympic gold medal hurdler Liu Xiang, success on the international stage has been limited for men.

Contrast that with women's tennis where Li Na is the number three-ranked player in the world and China have four women in the top 60 and more, such as promising 20-year-old Zhang Saisai from Shenzhen, on the way. There is no Chinese man within shouting distance of the top 200 ranked players in the world, and it's a fact not lost on some. "As big as Li Na is right now," said a sports promoter with mainland ties, "I still maintain that a good looking and successful men's star, like a Chinese Rafael Nadal, would be absolutely massive in China".

At this stage it is a totally moot point and even if a male star does emerge, he will never be a trailblazer like 31-year-old Li. A friend who has worked in China for years tells me that after the Australian Open final his WeChat was, "blowing up with pictures and messages about Li Na and interestingly all of it was from women. In general, I don't see women get behind any sports teams or figures in China but she has struck a chord with them".

Why wouldn't they get behind Li? Brainy, brawny and witty, she is so fiercely independent that she once fired her husband, and not for being a bad husband but for being a bad coach. In a country where millions upon millions of mothers count on internet chat rooms to find the best and safest baby formula for their infants, lack of trust in the authorities runs deep and in Li they have a high-profile ally. Li's repudiation of state-controlled sporting coaches once drove her away from the game and it was not until she got the promise of full autonomy on selecting her support team that she returned and flourished.

During her often-hilarious victory speech in Melbourne, noticeably absent was any sort of acknowledgement of her country which forced the state-run media to a run a series of editorials claiming she owed all her glory to the support of the motherland. Even more shameless was a Wuhan party official basking in her achievement and presenting Li with a cheque for 800,000 yuan (HK$1.02 million) last Tuesday.

But the people, and in particular women, know better. There is arguably no more influential person in China right now than Li. After winning the French Open in 2011 she became a huge star. With this latest victory, she has become borderline iconic. She has a foreign coach, a foreign management team and, most importantly, foreign accomplishments at the highest levels.

She did things her way and is the embodiment of the 21st century mainland woman. Try as the stodgy old cadres might, it is going to be next to impossible to put this genie back in the bottle. I mean, let's be honest here China.