The Women's Tennis Association could not be happier today. With her victory in the French Open on Saturday, Li Na became the first Chinese tennis player to win a major singles championship. Her historic triumph brings an unprecedented opportunity to market the sport to China’s perceived fan base of 1.3 billion people. According to Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob, Li's finals match against Francesca Schiavone drew a Chinese audience of 116 million.
The press has compared Li to basketball player Yao Ming because she carries a wink and an edge that could stand to make her popular beyond the tennis crowd. As CNN-Beijing's Xiaoni Chen wrote somewhat primly, “She has a tattoo, has dyed her hair many different colors and has even been known to yell at her husband in public.”When speaking about her victory over Schiavone, Li said in halting English, “Of course I was nervous. But I didn’t want to show the opponent. I was a little bit cheating.” By “cheating” she meant “acting.”
She's funny, smart, and good enough to contend in every Grand Slam tournament. Like Yao, she could become that holiest of holy grails in sports marketing: a brand. The clay had not even been smoothed on the courts of Roland Garros before the Wall Street Journal was asking the question, “As China celebrates Li Na’s victory in the French Open the next question is how she - and the world’s biggest brands - will cash in on her celebrity. Which labels will she represent? How will she be marketed? And who will pay the big money for her endorsement?”
The irony at work should be readily apparant. In the Eastern Bloc, athletics was seen as a way for athletes to forge individual identities. Often times, as in the case with Czech tennis great Martina Navratilova or Cuban pitcher Orlando Hernandez, it meant defecting to the West so they could reach greener pastures and flower freely.
Now Li seems set to bloom: and the fertlizer is coming in bags labeled Nike and Rolex. Rolex is Li’s biggest sponsor and as The Wall Street Journal explained, “A Rolex watch is a status symbol among China’s wealthy set.”As for Nike, Li’s entourage was all wearing canary-yellow Nike shirts that read “Achieve Yourself” in Mandarin lettering. The savvy Li pointed out in her victory-press conference that Nike had produced very few of these shirts for the Chinese market. She said, “I think now they should make more. A lot of fans would like to have these shirts.”
But before the new Li Na Rolexes and designer swoosh-wear roll off the assembly line and into the eager arms of consumers in the People’s Republic, we should take a moment and see what this actually tells us about 21st century China: the great economic partner and political bogey-man of the United States. Along with explosive economic growth over the last decade, class divisions in China have sharpened dramatically. This has been reflected in a tennis boom, seen as the symbolic sport that marks you as “elite”. In 1988 1 million people played tennis in China. Today that number stands at 14 million. Playing tennis is a sign that a family has status and it differentiates the new elites from those migrating from province to province struggling to survive. An article by Reuters published just last Thursday highlights this reality: “High-rise towers are under construction and luxury cars roll past bars and cafes catering to the city's entrepreneurial class, many of whom have become rich from real estate and stock market speculation. But inside the town's factories, it's another story.”
This “other story” was typified by an explosion last month at an iPad polishing factory where three workers died and 15 were injured. The catastrophe made international news. But accidents of the sort are "business as usual" in China. "Business as usual" in 2010 meant 360,000 industrial accidents across the country that were directly connected to the deaths of nearly 80,000 people. The brutal realities of "business as usual" has also spurred thousands of strikes and factory occupations over the last several years, even as workers risk imprisonment, torture, and death for their militancy.Independent unions, factory councils, and pitched battles in the streets are as much a feature of modern China as the McDonald's on the corner.
We can cheer the beauty and artistry of Li Na’s ability on the court. But please don’t call it a victory for China. Part of this remarkable country will cheer and play more tennis. A very separate and unequal part will die making those canary-yellow shirts: the last thing they see being that market-tested exhortation: “Achieve Yourself.” These contrasting realities are a recipe for the kind of social conflict for which Nike has no slogan.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]