Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Can China achieve its goal of becoming a major soccer power?

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Jonathan Sullivan

Jonathan Sullivan says developing the domestic league to catch players young and creating high-quality entertainment with foreign recruits to get fans into stadiums and secure TV deals will be key factors

A series of audacious player signings and investments in European clubs has put China’s soccer ambitions on the map. As soccer fans around the world are now aware, China has decided to become a soccer power and, as it usually does, is putting its money where its mouth is.

At home, the Chinese Super League has been reanimated and a huge amount of money earmarked for infrastructure, training facilities and expertise that China hopes will eventually improve the fortunes of the national team. At the same time, Chinese investors have been on a shopping spree across Europe, buying controlling stakes in clubs, notably in the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga.

The approach to becoming a soccer power has some similarities with other ambitious state-sanctioned projects, notably massive, rapid investment in infrastructure. The “build it and they will come” strategy has had mixed results. It served the manufacturing boom well, but it has also led to huge overcapacity in housing, steel and other sectors.

As with other somewhat nebulous ambitions (the Belt and Road, the Chinese Dream), the leadership has sketched out a vision to become a “major soccer power”, while the planning and implementation is largely left to government bureaus, provincial governments, state-owned enterprises and private businesses. With such an ambitious project, a lack of a concrete plan and a multiplicity of actors (often with their own motivations), things can go wrong.

What does it mean for China to become a “major soccer power”? Parsing statements thus far, the definition of a major football power would mean qualifying regularly for World Cups, hosting a World Cup, winning the Asian Champions League and perhaps the World Club Championship. It will involve huge state investment in infrastructure (training pitches, academies, etc), and acolytes in business (like Suning and Evergrande) investing huge sums (in this case, on players).

Is this model likely to turn China into a soccer power?

First, there is no doubt that China can build the infrastructure and put together the convincing commercial proposal needed to host a World Cup. Given the success of the Beijing Olympics and the government’s total commitment when it decides to host an event, this should be the easiest ambition to achieve.

Second, with the investment in prime coaching and playing talent from Europe and South America, Chinese teams will be competitive in the Asian Champions League and World Club Championship. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao has already won the former twice in the past four years.

Third, systematic development of youth training academies, pitches, referees and a decent league structure may improve the national team’s success on the pitch. State investment and targeted nurturing of talent led to dominance of the Beijing Olympic medal table. Not long ago, we would never have considered Chinese snooker players – now there are many in the top echelons. There are Chinese golfers, tennis players, basketball players – sports outside China’s traditional sporting culture and excellence. There is no inherent reason why the men’s soccer team shouldn’t improve significantly, at least in Asia.

However, for football to really succeed, China needs to foster widespread public interest in the game – not just following and betting on European professional leagues and the big international tournaments. Kids need to play the game and progress through youth leagues to professional academies. For that to happen, China desperately needs to foster interest in the domestic league – with no one watching, it is financially unsustainable, even with rich backers. The Chinese Super League needs to generate high-quality entertainment on the pitch, and it needs good foreign players to do so.

The high fees that have been used to recruit top players suggest the league is being taken seriously this time, after a number of false starts. Chinese clubs are owned by state-owned enterprises and big private firms with substantial cash reserves, and they can afford to buy these players to make a big impact rapidly. It isn’t a terrible strategy, but it isn’t sustainable without a more holistic approach to developing and growing the league by getting fans into the stadiums and securing a good TV deal.

Japan’s J-League and the US Major League Soccer have shown that it takes time for football to take root – but both have made decent returns. Both country’s men’s teams perform well in regional international competitions and participate regularly in World Cups. Both have hosted a World Cup and have healthy youth participation, especially among women – who also do very well in national competitions. After nurturing a “soccer culture” over a long period, both have thriving, albeit niche, domestic leagues. It took many years of concerted soft and hard investment to get to this point. We shouldn’t expect things to be smoother for China – but neither should we doubt that they can attain a similar level of success.

But is that level of success what Xi Jinping (習近平) has in mind? Would his apparent special interest be sated by attaining the relatively modest achievements of Japan and the US? Given that the Chinese men’s team is 78th in the Fifa rankings (the US is 26th, Japan 49th), I think it is a sensible and attainable goal.

Aside from Xi’s evident personal interest in soccer, there is another reason for growing the game. China is trying to generate a more positive image, and pursuing all kinds of “soft power” initiatives, but many have fallen flat. It is very difficult for an authoritarian state to engender the “seduction” at the heart of “soft power” through top-down initiatives. Others, particularly in the cultural realm, have fallen flat due to differences in taste, and the difficulties in “translating China for global consumption”.

Soccer, on the other hand, is straightforward. With a few exceptions, soccer is the world’s game and doesn’t need any “translation”. And for the countries with strong national teams and/or exciting national leagues, the “soft power” benefits are big. To date, China’s (men’s) national team has been an embarrassment and the Chinese Super League an afterthought. But there is hope that one day fans in the UK or Spain might wear the colours of Jiangsu Suning or Hebei China Fortune, just as Chinese fans now sport Manchester United or Barcelona shirts.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan is director of the China Policy Institute, School of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Nottingham

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Hong Kong should really stop treating its Paralympic champions as second-class athletes

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Yonden Lhatoo

Yonden Lhatoo despairs at the city’s unequal treatment of disabled athletes, who have won far more medals than their celebrated able-bodied counterparts

Not to rain on everyone’s parade, but while we’re going on and on, ad nauseam, about how awesome Hong Kong’s athletes were at the Rio Olympics and how proud they made us, let’s not lose track of the hard facts.

This city has competed in every Summer Games except one since 1952. Our medal tally to date: one gold for windsurfing in 1996, a silver in table tennis doubles in 2004, and a bronze for cycling in 2012. Nada in Brazil this year.

Now look at Hong Kong’s track record in the Paralympics. We have been there at the biggest global sporting event for disabled athletes every year since 1972. Our tally so far: 120 medals, 38 of them gold.

We are ranked 33 out of 116 nations and jurisdictions.

Singapore, by comparison, is ranked way below us at 85 with only six medals, including one gold. But Singapore won a spectacular gold in Brazil this time, and apparently that’s all that counts.

When an able-bodied man swims or runs faster than his peers along a straight line over a specified distance, that is somehow a greater achievement, to be celebrated on a far grander scale, than a disabled person doing the same thing.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m far more impressed by a person who can play basketball in a wheelchair like a pro than by a, well, pro.

Shouldn’t our Paralympic gold medallists be getting much more recognition and adulation than their Olympic counterparts who can only dream of comparative glory? Why is it that we have blanket media coverage and government patronage of Hong Kong athletes who almost-but-never-quite make it to Olympic medal-winning rounds – and I don’t mean to belittle their talent or work – but their Paralympic peers return home time after time, with multiple medals round their necks, to relative silence and obscurity?

Is it because they are somehow “second-class citizens”? That’s how 11-time Paralympic gold medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson of Britain put it recently in the face of the biggest crisis in the history of this sidelined sporting spectacle.

The Rio Olympics are over, and most people have had their fill of flag-waving fan indulgence, but it’s not quite finished as the Brazilian capital still has to host the 2016 Paralympics. And it’s not looking good. Only 12 per cent of tickets have been sold, and severe budget cuts have rendered some teams unable to even get to Rio because they’re depending on travel grants that have dried up.

Compare this disgraceful state of affairs with London 2012, when they sold a record 2.7 million tickets for the Paralympics – a million more than in the Beijing Olympics. There was so much excitement and hope that the world’s disabled athletes were finally getting due recognition, but it looks like that momentum was a flash in the pan.

Come September 7, Hong Kong will have 24 athletes competing in the Rio Paralympics. These are amazing people at the top of their game after overcoming debilitating physical and mental disabilities. They deserve a whole lot more than the usual lip service we give them.

This weekend, Hong Kong will host and honour the Chinese national squad, fresh from Rio. And just ahead of that, we welcome home our own Olympic heroes.

We will all extol their deeds and dutifully recite the chorus that the glory is in going head-to-head against the world’s best, never mind the medals.

When our Paralympic heroes return similarly from Rio, but with a string of medals in tow, let’s damn the double standards for a change. Because, seriously, if the consolation party for our brave Olympians turns out to be bigger than any ceremony for our winning Paralympians, I’d say it’s rather unsporting of us.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post

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Cantonese TV coverage of Olympics is yet another display of ill-informed, nauseating amateurism

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Philip Yeung

Philip Yeung says TVB’s excruciating bid to ‘carnivalise’ its broadcasts reflects how, in money-mad Hong Kong, sport is only an afterthought

As an Olympic Games couch potato, I am bitterly disappointed, once again, with Hong Kong’s Cantonese TV coverage. In a word, it is an annoyance. While we talk grandiosely about being part of the Olympic movement, the truth is that when it comes to sports, this city has a long way to go, journalistically at least, if not athletically.

Every four years, we are treated to another 16-days’ worth of nauseating amateurism in Games coverage, filled with non-stop chatter from people who know little about the events, and care even less to do their homework on the athletes, rules, significant statistics or the history of the Games.

Instead, they choose to “carnivalise” the coverage, giving viewers prizes for daily Olympic quiz questions, aided and abetted by an outsized panel of eight talking heads, each vying for air time.

Let’s face it, there is no Olympic fever in this city, however hard they pretend otherwise. I squirm at the jibber-jabber night after night. I know I am not alone in frequently muting the babbling commentators, preferring often just to watch the pictures without the sound. That’s how painful it gets.

For all the money it has poured into winning exclusive broadcasting rights for the Games, TVB has never gone beyond giving us “pretty faces in loud outfits”. I apologise for this uncharitable characterisation, but TVB, as the sole distributor for these broadcasts, has much to apologise for as well.

Sport, to all intents and purposes, is now a religion in the West. It is also big business, with a huge impact on people’s lives. Sports writing and commentary, as a consequence, has become a separate and highly specialised genre in journalism, producing its own galaxies of stars.

By contrast, in money-mad Hong Kong, sport is only an afterthought. Just look at the government’s simmering feud with our lifeguards whose strike closed public pools and beaches. The sports commentator’s lot is a sorry one. Anyone is qualified as long as they have a well-exercised tongue and no Frankenstein features. Our sports coverage is a joke, never taking serious sports fans seriously.

In mega global events, including world soccer championships, grand slam golf or tennis tournaments, the Hong Kong TV viewer’s experience is no less painful, if you happen to be unilingual Chinese. The difference between Chinese and English commentaries is like night and day. Thank God for Fox Sports and ESPN. The calibre of English commentators is exceptional, and the language vivid and dramatic.

Quite apart from the thrill of competition, the commentators milk their words for their economy, humour and rich imagery. They personify knowledge and discipline. It is a treat that I look forward to, almost as much as the event itself.

Hong Kong deserves better. As a long-suffering sports fan who has seen the good, the bad and the ugly in sports commentary, I have this advice for our journalism schools: offer specialised training in sports writing as a subdiscipline. It will give students much greater scope for writing with flair, unlike political commentary which has descended into demagoguery. Creative, firecracker sports writing and commentary is pure entertainment.

The other half of the equation is that our media outlets should raise the bar when hiring sports writers or commentators, and pay them accordingly.

Promoting Hong Kong’s image is not just a matter of throwing money at tourism ads. Every world city has embraced sports in all its glory, including quality broadcasts. Sport is now the universal language of a competitive world. The hospitality industry will tell you how important sports broadcasts are to their hotel guests. Sport transcends nationality and geography.

Lacking a sports culture, we must stop embarrassing ourselves further with subpar broadcasts. Having a gaggle of babbling talking heads who know less about the event covered than the viewers themselves marks this city as the backwater of international sports, not a proud member of the Olympic movement.

Philip Yeung is a former speech-writer to the president of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

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Sexism at the Olympics: a charge that barely holds water

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Peter Kammerer

Peter Kammerer says while some remarks admittedly objectify women and demean their skills, sometimes the meaning falls through the generation gap

There has been a lot of buzz about the sexist media commentary at the Rio Olympics. So I scrolled through some of the examples and, frankly, wondered what all the fuss was about. Yes, there are remarks that objectify women or demean their athletic ability, but the outrage also seems, in a number of instances, to be misplaced.

I put it down to one of the following: either there’s a misperception of what sexism is; the world has become too politically correct; or, I am a throwback to an outdated generation.

Talk of catfights on the judo mats, how fitting it is for a woman athlete to have a body that is anything other than “tight” and focusing on fashion sense rather than performance is obviously not on.

Nor is it acceptable to infer that women’s sporting events are less important than those of men or that female spectators are watching not for the results “but the journey”, as US television network NBC said in defending a decision to delay some broadcasts to prime time.

It is also indisputable that the male-dominated sporting world has long referred to men in terms of strength, speed and greatness, while the performances of women have generally been gauged in the eyes of some according to age, marital status and pregnancy.

It hasn’t helped that there has always been unequal representation of women at the Olympics, although there are more at the Rio Games than ever before, 45 per cent of competitors.

But to me, the accusations of sexism are not always justified. There was outrage when a US presenter credited Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s new world record in the 400-metre individual medley to the skills of her coach and husband, American Shane Tusup.

That’s only a little sexist. While it needs talent, hard work and huge effort to pull off such a performance, there is no denying the athlete’s times have improved markedly since she took on her new coach in 2013.

I’m not so sure that it was wrong for another commentator to say that “a lot of people think that” American gold medallist Katie Ledecky “swims like a man”.

Live commentary isn’t easy and this remark doesn’t make sense; what was actually meant, that the athlete’s abilities are equal to those of male counterparts, is hardly demeaning.

Complaints that women athletes are at times referred to as “girls” can be readily countered with the fact that the men are sometimes called “boys” – and why not, as a good number of the participants are teenagers?

Men far outnumber women in commentary boxes, so it would be interesting to see what would happen with equality. The US editions of two popular American women’s magazines give a hint.

The Cosmopolitan website has a slideshow headed, “36 of the greatest Summer Olympics bulges”, which draws attention not to performances but genital endowment, while Elle has a feature, “Hot shirtless Olympic dude of the day”. Social media has drawn attention as much to the physiques of male athletes as females’.

Would we have taken as much notice of the unusual facial expressions of Chinese backstroke swimming specialist Fu Yuanhui after her bronze-medal-winning performance if she had been of the opposite gender? How much would we have cared had it been a male gymnast who broke down in tears after failing to win a medal rather than Shang Chunsong?

Both have become social media darlings and, with that sentence, perhaps I have shown myself to have an in-built sexist streak. I can’t help it and blame my upbringing, generation and the conservatism of the city in which I live.

With political correctness, it’s really a matter of being aware and then thinking before speaking. But as I know with my two adult sons and those from what is known as the millennial generation, there are different points of view and ways of thinking.

It’s why some comedians refuse to perform at university campuses or have social media accounts.

It’s why I find people of my mother’s generation racist and why I think the charges of Olympic sexism are overblown.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

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Why China’s lack of success against Hong Kong on the football field isn’t its most vexing problem in sport

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Zhengxu Wang

Zhengxu Wang says in their angst over the national football team, the Chinese are missing a far bigger problem in sport – the lack of mass participation

Last week was extraordinary for football fans in China. On Tuesday, the national team drew with Hong Kong, eliminating any realistic chance of moving into the second phase of the qualifying matches for the 2016 World Cup. Then, at the weekend, Guangzhou Evergrande won the Asian Champions League trophy, with a 1-0 victory over United Arab Emirates’ Al Ahli in the final.

All around the country, fans have found it difficult to reconcile the excitement of Evergrande’s victory, the second in three years, with the embarrassment of the national team at the hands of Hong Kong. Those old enough will recall that this is not the first time a critical match leading to World Cup qualification has ended in discomfort for a proud Chinese national team at the hands of Hong Kong.

It was on May 19, 1985, that the overwhelming favourites, the Chinese national team, were defeated 2-1 by Hong Kong. Having reached the final of the Asian Cup the year before, it was probably the best national team that Chinese football has had, boasting star players such as Gu Guangming, Zhao Dayu, and Jia Xiuquan. Indeed, the team had even defeated the world’s top football team, Argentina, the year before at the Nehru Cup in India, a feat Chinese football probably wouldn’t dare to dream about again in the foreseeable future.

Fans found it hard to stomach the defeat by the Hong Kong team, which represented a British colony on a tiny island. Riots broke out that evening near the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, and the People’s Armed Police were called out to quell the trouble.

Since then, the numbers “5-19” have symbolised the Waterloo of Chinese football.

Certainly, it has not helped that cultural and political tensions between the mainland and Hong Kong have been running high of late. Neither has it helped that China has been doing very well in many other sports, harvesting Olympic medals in large numbers, never mind at the Asian Games and East Asian Games. Even disciplines traditionally dominated by Western athletes, such as sprint swimming, have seen breakthroughs by Chinese athletes.

All this must be put into perspective. First, despite the public fever it continues to inspire, football is just another sport, nothing more.

While national teams are competing to qualify for the World Cup, world governing body Fifa is finding it impossible to extricate itself from the largest corruption scandal in its history. Sepp Blatter, the organisation’s long-time chief, has succeeded in turning the four-yearly celebration of the best in the sport into an event synonymous with bribery and secret deals.

Football leagues around the world, meanwhile, have always been plagued by triad infiltration and gambling. Even the most successful leagues – England’s Premier League, La Liga in Spain, and Serie A in Italy – have, sadly, all been monetised and are more or less slaves to commercialism. Except for the extremely rich clubs, most teams in these leagues will never be able to compete for national and European titles.

Indeed, Evergrande’s success reflects more the power of money than the improvement in Chinese football. Barely two days after the club’s victory, Xinhua published a commentary criticising the company for bad business ethics and letting commercial motivation ruin the sport.

Monetisation sees to it that, despite having the world’s most successful league, England can seldom produce a championship-winning national team. And football stars, in the style of David Beckham, have become increasingly indistinct from celebrities in the entertainment industry.

Why should an individual or nation be so obsessed with such a sport?

The other, more critical, perspective is that, despite the national sports squads’ extraordinary Olympic performances and the large number of spectators both in stadiums and in front of the TV, individual Chinese participation rates in sport is extremely low. Today’s young people in China are doing very little physical activity on a daily basis. Combine this with a new urban lifestyle and high calorie intake, and the net result is an increasingly high incidence of obesity and other diseases.

Chinese lack opportunities to get involved in sport from a young age, and maintain such involvement later in life. Besides the required two sessions of physical education a week, many students, especially females, stay away from sports.

Schools and universities only play a role in promoting competitive sports, involving a tiny number of student athletes, who are considered different from normal students.

In the UK, anyone can join university- or community-based societies to play an array of sports. And it is very clear that students from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and other places have played many kinds of sport before they go to study in the UK. By contrast, mainland Chinese students, while large in number, show very little interest or skill in many sports.

The structural imbalance in China – a successful competitive sports sector, alongside sparse participation by the public – must be corrected. While the national government is now set to promote youth participation in football, the obsession should not be World Cup qualification, but to change the reality on the ground so that sports are for everyone.

Zhengxu Wang is an academic at the University of Nottingham who participates in various sports, including marathons and triathlons