Maggie Rauch is editor of China Sports Today, a blog about China’s emerging sports scene, and an occasional contributor to Shanghaiist. Today she talks about the top ten sports stories to hit China in 2009—wins, losses and scandals aplenty.
1. Soccer league match fixing
Bribery, match fixing, betting — the Chinese Soccer League has long been tainted with some of sport’s worst scourges. In November, police arrested 16 players, coaches and officials in an attempt to clean up the league. But observers say that a lot more still needs to be done.
2. Swimming makes a splash
When Zhang Lin became China’s first male swimming world champ in Rome this summer – winning the 800-meter freestyle in world record time – media quickly crowned him the Liu Xiang of the pool. But unlike Liu, Zhang had some backup from his teammates, as China put in its best ever performance at the world meet. With 4 golds and 10 medals, China was behind only the United States and Germany. Though Zhang Lin dominated the headlines, it was the women—led by Liu Zige and Zhao Jing–who were responsible for China’s breakout. Female swimmers accounted for all but two of China’s medals, and three of the four golds.
3. Diving judging scandal
China’s national games diving competition was shaken up when one judge quit late in the competition and then leveled accusations that results were fixed and that Zhou Jihong, head of the Chinese diving federation, calls all the shots. As the judge told China Economic, “The scary thing is how if she so much as slightly reveals her intentions, someone will take care of everything for her. As an official at these national games, I have more than once heard another referee say: ‘This gold medal the leader already decided must be given to so-and-so.’ Currently in the Chinese diving world, only Zhou Jihong can make these decisions.”
4. Sports official spills secrets
Former national volleyball coach and long-time senior sports administration leader Yuan Weimin published his memoir, “Yuan Weimin: Storms of the Sports World” in October. Among the stories in Yuan’s memoir that are making sports officials squirm is the tale of a shady vote-trading arrangement that put Belgium’s Jacques Rogge at the head of the International Olympic Committee and brought the 2008 games to Beijing. Weeks after his book came out, Yuan made the cover of Sports Illustrated China. In an exclusive interview with the magazine, he said now is the time for sweeping change to China’s national sports system.
5. Empty nest
The Beijing Olympics’ iconic building, Beijing National Stadium–aka the Bird’s Nest, aka a $400 million project that takes $70 million to maintain annually, aka a venue that required the relocation of thousands of families—has hosted only four events since the games ended 16 months ago (including an opera and a martial arts show that couldn’t have possibly turned a profit). The situation is so bad that in the fall, the state took back operating control of the venue from its private owners.
6. Liu Xiang’s return
A grimacing Liu Xiang limping around the Bird’s Nest track was one of the most potent images of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The former Olympic and world record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, an athlete who rivals Yao Ming in prominence in China, was unable to run because of an injury to his Achilles tendon. More than a year later, he put doubts to rest about whether his career was finished, returning to competition in the Shanghai Golden Grand Prix, where he finished second in a 13.15-second photo finish.
7. China win’s women’s curling worlds
Curling? On a top 10 list? Stick with me here… When China’s women’s curling team won world championships last year, skipper Wang Bingyu and her teammates became instant media stars on the mainland. The current team is China’s first generation of curlers, and if Canada doesn’t figure out how to beat them at the 2010 Winter Olympics, curling will become only the second team sport in which China has won an Olympic gold medal (women’s volleyball being the other, in 1984 and 2004).
8. Dealmaker: Kenny Huang
Last May, news broke that a Chinese investor was nearing a deal to purchase a 15 percent stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA franchise. That investor was Huang Jianhua, or Kenny Huang, who subsequently made a deal to promote youth baseball with the Chinese Baseball Association and to purchase a team in the Chinese Basketball Association. Last week, reports indicated that the Cavs purchase might go through before the end of the year. The lead on the deal is now Albert Hung, but Huang’s still very much involved.
9. HSBC Champions
Shanghai’s HSBC Champions golf tournament was elevated this year to World Golf Championship status, with $7 million in prize money. Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els finished first and second, and China got its last look at a squeaky clean Tiger Woods, who finished sixth. In his reporting on the event for ESPN, Shanghaiist editor Dan Washburn wrote that the event was well timed, as the inclusion of golf in the Olympics could provide a boost to the sport’s popularity and official support here. HSBC Champions returns to Shanghai next year, which means it will take place alongside the Shanghai World Expo.
10. China disappears from the NBA
While Huang buys his way into the NBA, Chinese players are limping out. Yao Ming is missing the current season with a foot fracture, and the Nets’ Yi Jianlian played just four games before sitting out at least the next 24 with injuries. The next great hope, Sun Yue, was dropped by the Lakers, then picked up and dropped by the New York Knicks. The NBA could really use another once-in-a-lifetime athlete like Yao right about now.