Commentary: Sports and U.S.-China Relations

By March 7, 2008 No Comments

Anthropologist Gene Cooper discusses how sports has and can continue to serve as a bridge across political boundaries.


I am an avid sports fan, and follow Trojan football with enthusiasm. I have participated in the Coach Pete Carroll’s faculty guest coach program, observing the team’s preparation during the week for the game on Saturday and then attending the game; in the process letting myself be seduced into being a more sympathetic task master for those football players enrolled in my anthropology classes. I confess.

I am also a China scholar, but not a scholar of China sports per say; that is, I have not been following China’s preparation for the Olympics in any systematic way, so I have very little to contribute in that arena (excuse the pun). My interests in Chinese society and culture run more in the direction of popular religion and popular culture than to sports in Chinese society.

Nevertheless, one doesn’t need to be an expert in Chinese sport to be aware of the role that sport has played in bringing about the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China. I refer of course to the phenomenon of “Ping-pong diplomacy,” a more or less spontaneous invention, in which sport came to serve as a medium for diplomatic signaling between the governments of China and the U.S. The 1971 hosting of the U.S. team by the Chinese gave legitimacy to “people-to-people” exchanges, and people-to-people diplomacy in the absence of formal diplomatic relations. It was my good fortune to have participated in one of these people to people exchanges back in 1972 as a member of the Second Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars friendship delegation to China. And of course, we are now aware that secret meetings were going on at the time between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai that climaxed in Nixon’s historic visit to China in February that same year.

Since that time, media has become increasingly globalized which, among other things, allows ordinary Chinese people to watch U.S. basketball games and playoffs on more than 51 different Chinese channels. Indeed, one could argue that in the intervening years between Nixon’s visit to China and the present, the most important U.S. ambassador to China has been none other than Michael Jordan. This man has had an enormous impact not only on Chinese sport, but also in communicating a positive image of the U.S. to ordinary Chinese people.

Michael Jordan’s popularity in China cannot be underestimated. A Bulls #23 jersey is the prize possession of any Chinese youth lucky enough to own one. And the effect of watching Jordan on television has transformed schoolyard play in China, in the same way it did the schoolyard play all over the U.S. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, not a few professional basketball players still made their living shooting two hand set shots. “Air” play was not even something we imagined until the advent of  Julius “Dr. J.” Irving introduced it to American basketball and Michael Jordan in the thoroughly networked era brought it the world.

Think about it. China’s enormous population means it represents an incredible pool of talent. If 20 thousand Chinese schoolkids try to imitate Michael Jordan’s moves, you’ve got to figure that a hundred or so are gonna get it right. Yao Ming’s success with the Houston Rockets and now Yi Jianlian with the Milwaukee Bucks, while players of different talents than Michael, are nevertheless proof of the depth of the talent pool in China. Their success generates enormous interest in U.S. sports as the recent somewhat anti-climactic Yao-Yi face off, carried on several Chinese networks, clearly demonstrated. There can be no question but that this contributes to the projection of an overall positive image of the US in general among ordinary Chinese folk. Not surprisingly, the NBA now has offices in four Chinese cities with 92 employees looking for talent, and why not? They have had enormous success recruiting talent in Europe and Africa. Why should the nation with the largest population in the world be left out? David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, is reportedly interested in establishing an NBA operated league in China.

In addition, Major League Baseball has been relatively successful in generating interest in the sport in China. China made significant efforts to field an Olympic baseball team, in anticipation of the possibility that baseball would be approved as an Olympic sport in 2008. They even hired former LA Dodger player and coach, Jim Lefebvre, as manager. I happened to cross paths with the team some years ago on a flight from China to Los Angeles. The team members, like me, were flying in economy class, and were on their way to Arizona for training under Lefebvre at a vacant major league spring training camp. But some time thereafter, the Olympic committee decided against including baseball at least as far as 2008 was concerned. In subsequent non-Olympic play against Korean and Japanese teams, the Chinese national team did not fair particularly well, but then again back in the 1960s or 1970s, nobody could have imagined China fielding a national baseball team. They will get better.

Indeed, Major League Baseball is enjoying something of a romance with China. Cal Ripken traveled their this past fall as an ambassador of U.S. sport, in his words “planting the seeds to grow the game of baseball”, and both the Yankees and Mariners have recently signed Chinese prospects.

Even the National Football League has got into the act, opening an office in China in the spring of 2007.

Given the state of the world, it is not really surprising that sports should become globalized in its recruitment and marketing. Everything else has. To be optimistic, the globalization of sport portends a world in which we come to know more about one another, our joys and passions. In the long run, that can’t be bad. The more we share experiences, the less likely we are to want to blow one another up. And while that is perhaps a somewhat crude way of stating it, to my mind it does get at what the Olympic spirit is all about. Coming to know one another, in competition, yet respectful of the other guy and his abilities.

Of course, as a world arena, the Olympics is also a lightening rod for those who would make political statements of all kinds–Adolph Hitler in the 1930s, black activists in the 1960s, national boycotts in the 1980s and nay even murder in the 1970s.

And even today, our network TV coverage of the Olympics here in the U.S. is rife with chauvinist, jingoist, flag waving, nationalist commentary about the performance of the “American” team, the “American” medals total, that I find pretty annoying.

I, for one, am not opposed to using the context of the Olympics to “speak truth to power” on behalf of the oppressed, the poor, the dispossessed, the unfairly imprisoned, the “wretched of earth.”

Clearly a successful Olympics in 2008 would be a foreign relations coup for the Chinese government, using sport to advance the nation’s international standing, but calling attention to itself in this way, the government must also be prepared to take the heat.

Still in all, it is in the strain towards shared experience that the world of sport can have a positive affect on international relations, even if that affect is merely symbolic and ephemeral.

Eugene (“Gene”) Cooper is professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is Adventures in Chinese Bureaucracy: A Meta-Anthropological Saga (Nova Science Publishers).