The mistreatment of young athletes in China is real – Four-times gold medallist Matthew Pinsent recounted what he saw and was shocked at the harsh measures the coaches used on athletes. Yao Ming’s story gives a different meaning to the word ‘sport’ altogether.
The 1.98m Houston Rockets centre also underwent years of punishing training as one of hundreds of thousands of potential Chinese athletes who endure miserable childhoods in boot-camp conditions.
The revelations in “Operation Yao Ming”, by former Newsweek journalist Brook Larmer, are likely to raise further disquiet over China’s Soviet-style sports system ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Larmer said Yao Ming, China’s first successful basketball export and its most famous face worldwide, was the product of a harsh and antiquated programme which has changed little since it was set up more than 50 years ago under Mao Zedong.
“Yao Ming on one hand is this great symbol of China’s modern advancement, a commercial icon that can stride across the Pacific and play the role of a bridge between East and West,” he said. “But he’s still the product of this system which is one of the last bastions of socialism in China.”
“One would think that as China can flex its muscle economically, militarily, diplomatically, that it wouldn’t need sports as a crutch. But sport is such a visible, exciting measure for China’s position in the world, and national feeling is so strong, I don’t think that’s going to be easy to give up,” he said.