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Li Na win shakes up China's sports system

Charles Platiau / Reuters

Li Na of China reacts after winning her women's final against Francesca Schiavone of Italy at the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris June 4, 2011.

By NBC News Ed Flanagan

BEIJING – It’s safe to say that China is going through a tennis craze right now.

Or perhaps more accurately, a Li Na obsession

Earlier this year during Li’s Australian Open finals match, I watched a man at my local gym feign exercise on a treadmill in a bid to watch Li’s attempt to become the first Chinese Grand Slam tennis champion on one of the room’s TVs.

I would have given the man the benefit of the doubt about the sincerity of his intention to workout had he not been dressed in a three-piece suit and gamely discussing the match loudly on his phone.

Li’s history making win of the French Open this past weekend brought similar intense attention. The Chinese state media reported that 95 million Chinese watched the finals – a startling number for a nation that now boasts 14 million tennis players.

While coverage of the win in state media has been understandably gushing, the spotlight has not just been shone on the 29-year-old’s remarkable transformation into a tennis titan, but also the system that was shaken up some years ago to allow her feat to occur.

Choosing to ‘Fly Alone’ 
Back in 2008, Li and three other tennis players famously pushed for reforms to the Chinese state sports institution that would allow players greater freedom in managing their careers.

What became known as the “Fly Alone” program transferred previously centrally controlled aspects of the players’ careers – like what tournaments to enter, who would coach them and where they would train – away from the Chinese Tennis Association to the players themselves.

In addition, financial issues such as sponsorship and endorsement deals were put directly in the hands of the players. The 65 percent amount of prize winnings demanded by the Chinese Tennis Association was slashed to 12 percent.

The strong-willed Li immediately broke with convention, installing her former teammate and now husband, Jiang Shan, as her coach – allegedly to the intense disapproval of Chinese Tennis Association officials. Since then she’s slowly built a support team around her that has allowed her to elevate her game to the next level.

Financially, she can also look forward to the majority of the $1.7 million French Open winner’s check ending up in her own bank account instead of government coffers. That in addition to new endorsement deals inked with the likes of Nike and Rolex essentially secure her future in ways the state system never would have.

Stringer/China / Reuters

Yu Liqiao (third from left in front), a former coach of Chinese tennis player Li Na, sprays champagne to celebrate with other supporters at the end of the women's final at the French Open tennis tournament, in Li Na's hometown Wuhan, Hubei province, on Saturday.

Old system did work
It would be easy to conclude that Li’s meteoric rise in a little over two years is an indictment of the state system that has been the foundation of Chinese sports since the 1980s. But that simply would not do justice to a program that has taken tremendous strides in a host of sports they now dominate regularly at the Olympic level – such as table tennis, badminton, weightlifting and shooting.

In addition, as Li herself has often noted in interviews, it was the state system that initially brought her into the tennis fold when she was just 9 years old. It provided her with the financial and professional support she needed to develop at a time when there was little tennis infrastructure or culture in China.

The story of Li’s early career is a classic example of the core tenets that have guided China’s sports mechanism over the years to so much success: early identification of talent and intensive regimented training. 

But the lessons learned from Li Na’s experiment with self-determination have left an indelible impression that can be expected to set off a chain reaction across the Chinese sports world.

"We took a lot of risks with this reform. When we let them fly, we didn't know if they would succeed. That they have now succeeded, means our reform was correct," said Sun Jinfang, an official with the Chinese Tennis Association. "This reform will serve as a good example for reforms in other sports."   

More reform?
Just what sports those will be and when such reform will be carried out is the big question.

Reformers will likely find themselves facing tough resistance from the risk-adverse sports establishment that will be hesitant to enact dramatic changes just over a year before the Olympic Games in London.

After China’s impressive performance challenging the U.S. for supremacy in the medal count during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the pressure may simply be too high on officials to allow for reform to be instituted.

Furthermore the transfer of training programs and financial planning matters directly to athletes will have an effect on the thousands of government employees who currently work for them – any reform would mean mass job cuts at every level of government. And the slashing of income coming in from athletes’ prize earnings would only further strain the system by drying up one stream of funding.  

But with victory checks and endorsement deals like Li’s in the offing – other athletes will likely insist on more reform in the future.