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An icon-free nation: in a sport context

November 14, 2012 Leave a comment

No one can possibly miss all those major media coverage about the sex abuse scandal in Penn State University during the past week. While the public angrily accused the disgusting crime and sympathized the eight victims, lots of the reports focused on the legendary head coach of Nittany Lions, Joe Paterno. Not long after Joe became the winningest head coach in Division I football on October 29th, this ugliest scandal on the history of college sport brought him into spotlight again, and eventually forced him to quit the job where he has devoted himself for more than half century.

Around Joe Paterno in such a complex case, too many complicated emotions from different parties grew at the same time. The shocked public was asking for the facts; the columnists were throwing their opinions on whether Joe deserves the dismissal; the agitated students in Penn State demonstrated us a night of riot which was very expectable; and there were definitely some hidden emotions within the Athletic Department and the board of trustees in Penn State. Nevertheless, one undeniable thing is the respects from all people to Joe Paterno as a sport icon. All the discussions, panic, and anger are all raised because of the possibly distaining to this icon by this vicious case. Look at those emotional students supporting Joe Paterno outside his house, you will understand how important this iconic person means to them. While college football is argubly the most nationally addicted sport, a legendary head coach could mean even larger than the game itself. He is not only one of the reasons that Penn State owns the fourth largest stadium in the world, but also one of the contributors help the school reach its current size of enrollment and level of popularity.

Seeking in my mind, I wish I could find a parallel sport icon back in my home country China. What I can think of are hundreds of heroic athletes who put the nation into the top place in Olympic Games, and some influencing idols such basketball player Yao Ming, 110m hurdles runner Liu Xiang and women tennis new power Li Na. However, it is not easy for me to come up with someone can be convincingly described as an “icon” as Joe Paterno for college football. To people who love that sport, the iconic image comes not from the position or authority owned by someone, but the leadership he/she demonstrates through the long-term committment to the game, the heavy contribution to the development of the sport, the great charisma delivered through years of communicating with the public, and of course the outstanding winning performance. Unfortunately in China, the sport environment is not that good for developing such a group of sport icons. The messed up sport governing system, the unsupportive media and the lack of the citizenship awareness are majorly responsible for this icon-free sport environment.

Grown under the national athletic system, many celebrity-level Chinese players are not as outspoken as many foreign athletes. People can judge their achievement by counting the championships they win and their sporting skills in the broadcasting, but very unlikely to feel their distinctive personality. Most of these athletes from the traditional player developement system choose to work for different sport governing body after their retirement, which in China seems like an “official placement” gives the athletes a stable social status as a reward for their performance on the field. However, as inexperienced officials without sufficient higher education, these retired athletes cannot have enough power or insight to make constructive contribution to the development of that sport. Consequently, instead of viewing them as sport icons, the knowledgeable fans often attach them with tags of “politics” or “bureaucracy”.

Hongbo Gao waved his hand to fans after his last game as the head coach of China National Football (soccer) Team. China beat Jamaica 1-0 in this game.

For retired athletes who become coaches of different levels in China, their life is no much better. Hongbo Gao is a young and devoted soccer coach in China. During his athletic life as a productive forward, he received many honors including the best scorer of the Asian Youth Tournament and the National Football A League. After coaching several teams in the A League and learning the advanced coaching philosophy in Europe, his continuous hard work paid off to make him one of the most successful coaches in China. During his two-year term of coaching in China National Team from 2009, he recorded a 24-13-5 (win-draw-loss) performance and brought China National Team from 108th (as of Jul 2009) on FIFA national team ranking to 70th (as of Oct 2011). From my perspective, Gao’s coaching ability, working ethics and his highly committed career path can very possibly make him an iconic person with millions of advocates in China. However, despite his 6-game winning streak, China Football Association (CFA) replaced him by famous Spanish coach Jose Camacho in August 2011, right before the second stage of 2014 World Cup Qualifier.

There were doubts about this decision from media and some fan groups, but nothing emotional happened like the fan riot in Penn State to retain this good coach. The main sport media was just mildly discussing this questionable decision. It was like no media coverage trying to positively direct people’s perception towards this team after the recent disclosure of huge corruption within China Football Association. The consequence was not surprising considering the Spanish cannot even understand the playing style and the players’ characteristics in such a short time: China National Team encountered three consecutive losses.

Sport reporter Leonard Koppett wrote in his book “Sports Illusion, Sports Reality”: Sports reflect social conditions; they don’t cause them. The icon-free sport world in China to some extent reflects the current situation of citizenship awareness in China. People are not giving credits to the people fully devoted themselves in a certain area such as a sport, nor helping construct a healthy community which values those potential iconic persons. Comparing with Gao’s dismissal as a lack of public voice, Joe Paterno was fired in a sad but noble atmosphere. Many American people understand Joe did not meet his moral duty to prevent the further development of the sex abuse tragedy, but at the same time they feel sorry that the legendary coach has to end his career in such a regretful way. People fulfilled the obligation of citizenship by accusing the vicious behavior affecting the well-being of the society, while recognizing Joe Paterno as a great coach for what he did for Penn State Football and the whole college sport. Though distained by the scandal, the 84-year-old Joe will still be perceived as a sport icon such as the way when people talk about Bobby Knight and Jerry Tarkarian.

On November 12th, Penn State University hosted their first game without Joe Paterno as head coach since 1966. Fans filled the beaver stadium’s 107,000 seats. They prayed for the eight kids in the sex abuse scandal before the game, called the name of every Nittany Lions’ players, and of course, used different ways to show their love and respect to Joe Paterno who was not in his beloved stadium for the game.

Penn State Fans during Nov 12th game against Nebraska

Despite it turned out to be their first loss in conference games of the season at this special moment, no post-game riot or irrational behaviors from fans were reported. All you can feel in the stadium was just those complex but noble emotions, and the invisible connections among the people wear the same dark blue color. The whole Penn State community get more united than ever to face this PR disaster, showing support for the victims in and out of the stadium, demonstrating the characteristics valued and instilled by their ex-coach, Joe Paterno. They lost the game, but did not lose the right way of idolizing their sport icon.

 Just one day before Penn State’s loss, on the opposite spot of the earth, China National Football (team) also lost the must-win away game against Iraq, and consequently the chance to enter the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Most of the fans started making jokes about another familiar loss of the National Team, while only few of the disappointed fans began thinking of Coach Gao and grumbling on the internet about the earlier dismissal. Chinese people are getting lost in this icon-free nation, which may happen not only in a sport context.
Categories: BLOG, Blog in English

An authentic Italian cuisine in a Chinese plate

August 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Thanks to my friend working in the game-operating company for the 2011 Italia Supercoppa, I became one of 70,000 lucky fans in the giant Beijing National Stadium last night witnessing this authentic european soccer game. As I mentioned in a previous article, the Milan Derby no doubt attarcted millions of the advocates of both teams, and consequently turned out to be the most successful preseason commercial soccer game hosted abroad. 

Authenticity and the rivalry are the main selling points of this game. Unlike other commercial games between big-time clubs and local teams in the destination countries during pre-season, Italia Supercoppa is the official game under the administration of the Italian Football Federation. The federation paid extreme attention to the grass situation of the Beijing National Stadium, which explains how important they perceive the game. Though other prestigious teams such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Real Madrid are also trying to explore China market this summer, they are easily dwarfed by the two Italian clubs, in terms of the media influence and the revenue from the game. AC Milan, with a heart-stirring comeback 2-1 win, is believed to receive over 10 million Euros from the game operating company, United Vansen Sports. Besides, it is rare that one of the fiercest rivalry in club soccer history can take place in a foreign country. The hostility between two of the largest soccer fan groups in China well guaranteed the high attendance rate and the tense atmosphone in the stadium.

Even so, people still doubt the game quality before the match because of  the inadequate adaptive trainings in China, and the tight schedule of attending numbers of commercial activities for both teams. Yet all these concerns ceased when two teams ran out from the aisles with strong desire for winning the trophy. The 90 minutes included so many exciting elements: Wesley Sneijder’s beautiful freekick, tackles and quarrells raised by tough midfielder Gattuso, Ibrahimovic’s outstanding performance facing his ex-employer, and a solid comeback of AC Milan with strong Sub-in of Alexandra Pato.

If we conclude the game quality reached the way it should be, then the passionate performance of Chinese fans in Birds’ Nest last night must be greatly beyond the teams’ expectation. When I arrived there two hours prior to the game, the Inter fans from all over the country have filled the north stand of the stadium while the Milan fans filled the opposite south one. The giant Inter team jersey was spread out by hundreds of die-hard fans, while they kept chanting team slogan without feeling tired. The fans’ passion had been also demonstrated off the field in the previous week, that thousands of fans of both teams followed the teams’ schedule from welcoming their beloved players in the airport. The great fandom in China also influenced the athletes. Sneijder said he want to win the trophy for the supportive fans in the pregame press conference. “Prince” Boateng used a Chinese Kung-fu move to celebrate his scoring the 3rd goal of the game, in tribute of the passionate Chinese fan creating such a great arena.

Read more…

Categories: BLOG, Blog in English

The King or the Warrior – A myth of Lebron James’ leadership

June 20, 2011 Leave a comment

We should feel lucky to have witnessed a spectacular NBA Finals for this season. Mavericks’ first NBA Championship in their franchise history is such a great story-line, considering they own a group of highly determined players thirsty for winnings, an experienced coach advocating disciplined basketball, and an outspoken owner who is a Hoosier alumnus with extraordinary passion for basketball (Go Hoosiers)! However, their motivating story of a greatly successful season is somehow overwhelmed by the discussion on Lebron James’ failure to reach people’s expectation. It is understandable since the fans perceived the Heat as the favorites to the series mostly because of Lebron James’ tremendous performance in his first season in the south beach. But James was blamed not mainly because of his underachieving performance in the Finals. It was his questionable leadership demonstrated in the big stage of Finals that aroused the criticism.

Though I dislike the playing style of the Heat and Lebron James, I have to admit he played impressively for the overall playoff games. He fully expressed his talent and made important shots to beat the aged Celtics and immature Bulls. Even in the Finals, he was still playing good basketball statistically: he became the sixth player in the NBA history to play triple-double in the Finals, and he played aggressively in the defensive side. However, what people would remember most was James’ disappearance in the fourth quarters of every Final Games. Since people perceive a leader should step up when the team was at the crucial situation, his 18 total points in the fourth quarters of six games obviously did not meet his super-star identity, or just a normal all-star identity. Whoever watched the games could tell the indecisiveness of James’ play in the series, and sometimes a puzzled expression on his face. We all know this was not what a true leader looked like, but what happened to the King James whom we supposed to have powerful leadership?

The plus-minus stats of Lebron James' important playoff series

From my observation, there are both internal and external factors to explain this. Internally, I believe Lebron James does not have strong enough psychological quality to face the extreme pressure. He is no doubt one of the greatest scorers in the NBA history, but his inablity to beat the buzzer and disappointing performance in the past important playoff games demonstrate no great leadership quality to us.

I can only guess that his lack of college athletic experience makes him more immature than other great players like Michael, Bird and Magic. He tweeted about his suffering the excitement insomnia before several the big game against Chicago Bull in the Eastern Finals, “Can’t sleep! Too excited right now. Breaking down film til I fall back to sleep”, which was posted at 5 a.m. His mocking on Nowitzki’s coughing also showed his immaturity. 

When there were only four minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the ticker showed the score as 100-100 while Lebron James facing the defense from 38-year-old Jason Kidd. Our King chose to make a jump shot and he missed it, while Dirk immediately slide into the paint and made a dunk. Everything was so weired, right? One of the most talented current players with greatest body quality ever chose not to penetrate with his full speed at that point? This was not the James we were familiar with when he ruled the game back in Cleveland. Whenver someone stand on his way to the hoop, he would accelerate and destroy that guy. But he was definitely scared this time, scared by the championship opportunity of his first season in Miami, and also scared by the desire for the winning of the old guys from Dallas. At the age of 26, he is still too young to get over his inner fear and lead the team to the greatest moment.

Kidd:"Come on, LBJ, show me your jump shot!"

The external factors may better explain in this case. We have to take into consideration that Lebron James is till adapting to the new environment in the Heat. His role has changed with his big “decision” last summer, but no one ever told him what his new role in Miami would be. James need to define his duty in the new team by himself. Throughout this year, we find the King position himself more like a playmaker and a good defender than before. It seems he has left the responsibility of leading the team to his friend Dwyane Wade. This was a reasonable decision to me, since D-Wade is still the heart of the team, the symbol of the current Miami basketball. The public just has too much expectation on the Big Three, leading to some irrational  criticism on James. So, the choice not to take the primary leading job in his first season in Miami is James’ freedom, and actually a smart decision. As Dan Le Batard pointed out on the Miami Herald, Lebron James was working hard in an environment with absurd anger and pressure. He was making a tough transition from the Lonely King James to one of the warriors in south beach.

No matter what role he plays, James’ ultimate purpose in the Heat is to win the championship. He failed to reach the trophy this time because he did not find a good balance on individual performance and team play. In a game like basketball where the individuals can make huge impact, James should not risk the winnings of the team by making his point that he was an unselfish team player. When Wade was closely defended and forced some turnovers, Lebron James was still passing the balls to teammates like Juan Howard with only 2.8 points per game. He did not realize that the teammates wish he could become another leader at that time, encouraging the team by a stunning dunk instead of organizing the team like old Jason Kidd. When the consistent jumper made by Dirk and the incredible 3-point shootings come from other Mavs, we can only see Dwyane Wade shout at his discouraged teammates trying to raise their morale. But James seemed like always trying to think about how to play in a proper way. 

My guess would be that he was too struggled by so many concerns after being criticised for his move to Miami. He cared too much about what the Big Three looked like, what the team looked like and what he was perceived by the others, and all of these concerns diluted his passion and main purpose going to Miami, to win the NBA Championship. As we learned from Warren Bennis’ On Becoming a Leader, a leader should leave his past behind him, work on his guided vision, and influence his people by this vision. James failed to be a good leader since he did not do everything he could to influence his teammates to reach the objective.

To conclude, Lebron James failed to demonstrate good leadership quality in the Final Games partly because of his weakness in mental quality, but mostly because of he was in a transition process from a King of the team to a normal warrior. When Scottie Pippen compared Lebron James with Michael Jordan after the series against Bulls, the King was frightened and quickly made the response that his achievement and athletic skills were far from what Michael did. Pippen’s statement revealed the high expectation from the public. People wish Lebron James could fully ultilize his talent and become the next Jordan, and they wish James could play like Jordan with a determined, spectacular and influencing style. Yet James has his own plan which may sound disappointing to the fans: he wants to be another Scottie Pippen, who was not an absolute leader of the team, but definitely a great champion ring collector in the NBA history.

Categories: BLOG, Blog in English