Works and Days

Take Me Out to the Ball Game...

For the first decade of my life I was raised, shall we say, sports-agnostic. My family didn't hate sports, we just paid almost no attention to the usual lot of them—basketball, football, baseball. We were a remote island from the great continent of American sporting life, and those bits of scandal-ridden sports news that did float our way were enough to keep us distant and disinterested—even disapproving.

When I was about ten though, an unexpected bridge to a wholly different continent—and a totally different sport—opened up and my family stumbled upon badminton. The truth is my dad had a Chinese girlfriend at the time and she introduced the sport to him.

As the story goes, my dad, knowing that his girlfriend liked the sport, bought a cheap two-racket-plastic-bird-volleyball-net badminton set and presented it to her one summer day. She promptly laughed. “That's not real badminton,” she said. Wondering what she could have meant by this, my dad decided to bring her to our local junior college, knowing it offered open-gym play for just a few dollars. There my fit, well-coordinated dad proceeded to get clobbered by girlfriend and company. He took big hammer-swings at the bird, but it was no use—he looked like a fool to the delight of his more skilled opponents. But he relished the challenge, committed to playing at least once a week, improved his technique, and soon brought myself and my brother along to play as well. In no time it was our weekly tradition.

Out these casual beginnings, my personal love for the sport only grew. My high school (in Santa Rosa, CA) had a badminton team and the county a badminton league. I played as number one in the league for two years, and competed regularly in UC tournaments. The San Francisco bay area has clubs specifically devoted to badminton, so I could play and train in them during the off-season. The clubs, the leagues, the tournaments: California could be said to be the capital of badminton in the States, and there is no mystery behind why. The area has a huge number of Chinese immigrants, and they bring demand. Thus with this PSF project I feel almost as if I was given the chance to trace my, my family's, and my state's history with the sport back to its flourishing motherland, China. What began as weekly hobby has landed me here, 6000 miles east of home, where badminton is the rule in sports, not the exception.

But now that I am just days from returning home, I want my forays and inquiries into this subject to come full circle: I want to bring mainstream American sports culture into the discussion. I'm standing on top of two and a half months of travel, and now I want to turn and look back, past the ground I've covered, past the little island I came from and to the great continent that is popular American sports. Comparing it to Chinese badminton will undoubtedly shed light on them both.

To begin to get an idea of the kinds of differences between these two countries' sporting worlds, let's take a quick stop at the tournament I attended a few weeks ago, the Zhongguo daxuesheng yumaoqiu jinbiaosai, that is, the Chinese University Student Badminton Championships. Zhou Laoshi, my coach from Beijing Sports University, had invited me to come spectate. University students from all over China and Hong Kong, including the BSU badminton majors, were gathering to compete in the same venue the 2008 Olympic badminton games were held at. The skill on display, even at this non-professional level, was fantastic.

But quite contrary to six years ago, the audience, I quickly discovered, was thin as water. For the three days I attended, I saw few people who weren't relatives, officials or players (the picture was charitable). I came there as fan, to the very pinnacle of collegiate badminton competition in China, but apparently I was one of the only ones. There were no groups of fans gathered to support their favorite team, no families dressed up in their favorite team's colors, no outrageous costumes or body-painted diehards, no marching band, no halftime show, no blow-up clappers, no television. I don't think there were any rules against such things; they just weren't there. Instead, the biggest cheering section came from the off-duty student line judges recruited from the school the tournament was being held at.

Badminton, as I have said over and over, is one of the most popular sports in China, and yet half the audience at this great annual tournament was crickets. This may all seem somewhat anomalous to the American sporting mind, accustomed to NCAA Division I Playoffs, bowls, and March Madness. How do we account for such a stark discrepancy? My answer will take us back to each of these countries' basic sports histories.

The first thing to point out in a comparison between these two countries' sporting worlds is that sports in America grew up organically, where sports in China were very purposefully instituted.

In America, baseball, football and basketball—the Big Three—have reigned supreme after more than a century of continual growth. Baseball, the most mythic and time-honored of American sports, was the child of American agrarianism and the British game of rounders, and it was born in slow-paced seasonal life and big open fields. It grew into its prime after being absorbed into major cities and organized by leagues into permanent teams with regular game schedules. Football is the more violent, specialized offspring of British rugby. It was established amidst rivalries and competitions between prestigious American universities, as between Yale and Harvard. Basketball also developed in American schools, but it was the invention of a YMCA teacher looking to give his students a fun, healthy way to exercise during winter months. It took root in the cities, where there was limited space and more indoor venues.

Such organic growth has two big consequences. First, it means that the Big Three are very deep-seeded indeed in American popular culture. Americans strongly identify with these sports, and they identify with them as American sports. The Big Three are our own creations, we harken to them as symbols of American life, and many of us frankly believe that they are the best sports in the world.

The second consequence is a more structural issue. It has to do with the way basketball and football have grown up side-by-side with American schools for the past 100 years. Schools and sports are now so wedded together in America, we take the system for granted. But this is a strange way of organizing sports when we consider not only how it is done in China, but in most of the rest of the world. No other country asks so great a number of its high schools to take responsibility for serious sports training and competition, and no other country asks so many of its colleges and universities to field semi-professional teams for public entertainment. Some see this wedding as a match made in heaven. Others, however, see it fraught with corruption, scandals, and contradictions with the real business of education. One way or the other, it is clear the professional sports track is solidly embedded in our public education system, and this alone does a lot to explain the disconnect between the tournament I saw and kind of collegiate finals found across the States.

In China, sports history and organization tells a very different story indeed. Where sports in America rose to prominence in the ferment of inter-city and inter-collegiate competition, sports in China were the object of very purposeful national prerogative. Badminton, for instance, stumbled along in China in the 30's and 40's as a foreign import, and was only taken seriously when all sports got a lease on life under Mao's policies in the 1950's. This turned out to be a pretty short lease, however, because a decade later the Cultural Revolution shred China's efforts to achieve within sports to pieces. It wasn't until the 80's that China's government sports training began to produce world-class badminton professionals, and the 90's that clubs began to surface among average Chinese citizens. From there on out, badminton flourished as a recreational sport.

Because China built sports like badminton largely from the ground up, and directly under government direction, it didn't have to deal with any issues that may plague an organic integration between sports and studies. The PRC recognized the value of sports international projection, and committed to building them in the most organized, controlled manner possible: they built devoted sports schools and sports universities. To this day professionals in China pursue their sporting career in a sports school hierarchy completely divorced from normal academic schools.

In America sports are a local drama, taking place in the turbulent, insular worlds of city and college competition, and in China sports are a national drama, more removed from people's local concerns and allegiances, enacted on a huge international stage. One is largely organic, the other largely instituted, and the difference between the two helps account for the wildly different American and Chinese sports experiences. The way these two countries think about sports varies on a very basic level.

For Chinese, while national sports always loom large in the cultural and political background, sports as a general term could mean a number of things. Some, but certainly not most, Chinese people are sports fans. Their attitude is a committed fan devotion, and the majority of the sports they consume are imported. Many Chinese love international soccer--the World Cup is a major deal here. And NBA games command more than a third of total sports television run time. A decade ago, when Chinese kids were asked who their biggest heroes were their most common responses were: Zhou En Lai, the first Premier of the PRC, and Michael Jordan.

But when typical Chinese think of professional sports in their own country, they think of something that talented, very determined people do to win national pride. Most people know the professional track is hard and ruthless and they don't feel threatened or enticed by it. They know that a lucrative salary in sports or chance to be in the public spotlight is reserved for a choice, choice few. Most kids do not see China's professional athletes as people they would necessarily want to be. Those few superstars like Michael Jordan and Lin Dan exist in a mythic realm that is fun to look at, but rarely sought after. Most kids are truly much more worried about their rank in class and their upcoming National College Entrance Exams.

Between high-level national professionalism and relatively low numbers of sport devotees, I see room in the Chinese mind to think of sports as something they will do for fun or for exercise. This perhaps explains the huge number of recreational players. Of course, plenty of Americans feel that sports are a fun, competitive work-out, but plenty also don't. Let's imagine for a moment the average American sportsman—I'll call him Jim.

Jim loves sports. He grew up playing baseball in his local Little League, and in his teens made it as fullback for his high school football team, which was one of the best in the region. Jim wasn't the strongest or most skilled on the team, but he was good, and together with the team's star quarterback they took home the season championships a few years. During his undergrad, Jim went on to play Division II football, and after graduating he decided to work in sales. Today, Jim and his wife have a nice apartment with a 55' TV. Although Jim doesn't play many sports himself these days, and has gotten quite a bit bigger around the waist, he still lives for the sense of good-old fashioned Americanism he gets from baseball, the stunning stars he keeps tabs on in the NBA, and the violent, epic rivalries he follows in college football. Just like he had done with his family when he was young, Jim and his wife buy season tickets and are loyal fans of their favorite teams. During the football season they will take turns hosting Sunday Night Football. Such ritual get-togethers always feature plenty of beer, plenty of talk about this year's teams' prospects and strategies, and culminate in one of the biggest annual celebrations of Jim and his close ones' lives—the Super Bowl.

Jim the sportsman, with a few notches and variations, really represents a huge demographic of American citizens. The fact that he stopped playing sports when he graduated college is normal. He did his part performing on American society's sports stage, and now he can join the audience. Notoriously violent and injury-prone, football is hardly the kind of sport Jim could continue playing into his 40's and 50's anyways. For most of Jim's life, his intimate relationship with sports will be defined by how he watches sports and who he watches them with. Jim and his friends, after all, do not just watch but wholly identify with the college football team they follow. Their thrill as fans is intense and vicarious. Far from being some strangers watching other strangers put their skills on display, Jim and his friends are a part of the team; in cheering, they become "the twelfth man." When Jim's team wins, Jim says to his friends, “we won the game.” Sports are taken very seriously in America, but in truth it's not primarily for recreational, health or patriotic reasons. It's because Americans like Jim integrate it wholeheartedly into their communal, spiritual life. Sports in America come down the close relationship between viewers and players. Sports in China are an amalgam of nationalism, borrowed culture and widespread recreation.

Understanding these two mentalities of sport helps explain my position as a lonely fan at the yumaoqiu jinbiaosai—it was a player's tournament, not a fan's, and that's normal in China. But the comparison between the two cultures also sheds light on a rather startling statistic, which I want to leave you with. Consider: about 250,000,000 Chinese play badminton. 26,000,000 Americans play the most participated-in sport in America—basketball. Of course, China is much bigger than America, so let's say America's population is the same as China's, and the number of basketball players adjusts accordingly. Proportionally, that still only makes for about 115,000,000 basketball players. This means that about 50% fewer Americans participate in the most played sport in America than Chinese participate in the most played sport in China. Those numbers are some serious food for thought, I think you will agree.

Empty seats at the college tournament; courts overflowing during rec time at the college gym. That, I feel, represents one of the most striking legacies of badminton in China. What, if anything, this legacy could mean for sports in America—that I will let you decide.



Jilin, China

22 August 2014

Tags: psf, presidents summer fellowship, badminton, china