Somehow in all of that, Thompson kept his cool. Somehow, he got his group together. Somehow, he got them off the floor, into the locker room, and on to the bus. “We’re outta here,” he said.
It’s one thing to have a bench-clearing brawl between New York and Detroit, or Duke and Maryland. It’s quite another to have one in China. The stakes are simply higher, especially this week with Vice President Joe Biden visiting the country to discuss tensions between the two biggest economies in the world.
What happened on the court between Georgetown and the Bayi Rockets will be read as a full blown international incident, because of the simple fact that sports and politics are inextricable in China. China’s programs are highly institutionalized, rough, and sometimes brutal affairs that are direct expressions of nationalism. Did this cause the brawl? We’ll never know exactly. But it’s the culture of the place where it happened.
Anyone who witnessed the Beijing Olympics understands how much sports in China are an essential expression of governmental ambition and prestige. During the 2008 Games, China showcased and projected its global aspirations in everything from the architecture of the arenas, to the cleansings of the streets, to the pressure on political dissidents, and intolerance of demonstrations.
The back story to China’s rise as a sports power is dramatic: It won its first world championship in 1959 in table tennis, but by 2004 Chinese athletes had won 1,800 world championships and 1,119 gold medals. At the Beijing Games alone, they won 100 medals.
There are 20,000 elite athletes in the training system year round, and their ascendancy begins in grade schools, where students are subject to corporal punishment from coaches, and those who don’t reach the required physical standards aren’t allowed to go on to higher schools. One western correspondent in Beijing, Simon Tisdall of The Guardian, characterizes China’s sports machine as a “culture of pride and aggressively nationalistic assertiveness.”
Recently the Chinese Basketball Association temporarily suspended Fan Bin, the head coach of China’s Under-19 national basketball team, because 13 of his players complained in a formal letter of continual physical and verbal abuse, including severe beatings, according to the Guangzhou Daily.