Giant on the move
Soccer is in a tight spot in China — literally. Huge crowds roar for Manchester United but the national team is a laughing stock at 108th in FIFA world rankings. Poor coaching, lack of grassroots development, even corruption and violence are variously cited as reasons for the sport’s demise. But the real reason may be more basic: the fact of physical space, or the lack thereof, in China.
If geography is a determinant of economic development, then it is fair to extrapolate that urban geography underpins the development of sports. And here’s the rub for soccer, not to mention American football and baseball. With few parks, small concrete schoolyards and a dearth of quiet streets, urban China offers little of the space needed for the sprawling play that defines those sports. Soccer has deep roots in China, but playing space has been squeezed as cities sprawl and swallow land in big gulps.
The NBA’s huge popularity in China has left other sports leagues salivating. They, too, dream of their own Yao Ming bringing forth TV audiences in the tens of millions and merchandising opportunities galore. But basketball can thank China’s spatial constraints more than its own marketing wizardry for such success. Dozens of nets crammed into schoolyards make the sport accessible to a huge number of young enthusiasts. The ease with which basketball has been woven into China’s urban fabric has a precedent in the explosion of Chinese table tennis in the 1950s. Both are simple enough games that can be played in tight spaces.
Curiously, the physical limitations of the crowded country augur well for one sport that uses more space than almost any other: golf. Unlike baseball, football and soccer, golf does not need a critical mass of ardent supporters to take off. Golf, in fact, can thrive in conditions of scarcity, when a small number of high-priced courses consolidate its position as an elite pastime. The lack of space in China makes it an expensive sport, out of reach for the great unwashed and just the ticket for the country’s nouveau riche.
After watching the United States destroy every opponent in the basketball tournament by an average of more than 30 points before the final on Sunday, there probably weren’t many people expecting Spain to have a chance against a “Redeem Team” determined to win back the gold medal after the debacle of the bronze in 2004.
But then Spain played a superb match and kept the Americans on the ropes all the way to the very end with one dazzling basket after another.
Michael Phelps made the headlines once again – most of them including the word “pantheon” — as he made it three gold medals and three world records from three finals so far.
The American now has nine career Olympic gold medals to his name and will almost certainly break the record he now shares with four other athletes when he swims in two finals tomorrow.
But there I was, not 10 metres from President George W. Bush, his father, former President George H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger covering the blockbuster United States v China Olympic men’s basketball game.
Michael Phelps smashed his own world record in the 400m individual medley to set off on what could be a record-breaking gold medal trail on day two of real action at the 2008 Olympics.
That was early in the morning and it took until late at night before we had a story that even came close to matching it, with the United States overcoming a slightly unconvincing start to beat China by an emphatic 101-70.
The Olympic basketball match between China and the United States just ended with the U.S. pulling away to win 101-70 in what they say was the most-watched event sporting event in China’s history.
It’ll be no surprise if the estimates are right and a billion or so people around the world were tuned in to watch what was after all an irresistible contest – a meeting between the “Reds” and the “Red-White-and-Blues” and one laden with symbols.
Chinese basketball player Yao Ming (C) holds the Olympic torch during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games torch relay in Beijing August 6, 2008. REUTERS/Joe Chan (CHINA)
Russell Boyce writes: Yao Ming enters Tiananmen Square holding the Olympic torch high in the air in front of the portrait of Chairman Mao. The calm in the faces of Yao and Mao belies the chaos that surrounds them, as the flame escorts push back the assembled media and a crush of spectators.
Dirk Nowitzki was picked to carry the German flag into the Olympic Stadium’s Opening Ceremonies on Friday but, in a country where carrying the national flag had long fallen out of favour, the NBA all-star basketball player was given a few unsolicited pointers by German Olympic officials on how to do the job.
“They gave me the tip that it’s not going to be like at Carnival and so I shouldn’t wave the flag around too wildly,” said Nowitzki, who added he was deeply honoured to be the country’s flag-bearer. “But I think I’ll still be able to have some fun with the whole thing.”
Loaded with outrageous talent, the United States men’s basketball team insist they will be checking egos at the door at the Beijing Olympics.
Boasting Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and its leading scorer, the Americans are favourites to win gold, although 2004 Athens gold medallists Argentina and world champions Spain will push them all the way.