The 7-foot-6 Vessel of China's Hopes

Basketball first came to China via foreign missionaries near the end of the 1890s. Later, under communist rule, athletics were used as politics. This video includes scenes from a recent game between China and Serbia, including shots of China's most famous hoopster, NBA All-Star center Yao Ming.Video by Maureen Fan/The Washington Post
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 24, 2008

HANGZHOU, China, July 23 -- In the affluent lakefront capital of Zhejiang province last week, Yao Ming, China's 7-foot-6 center, walked onto the basketball court at Yellow Dragon Stadium to thunderous applause. It was a small but significant step for the upcoming Beijing Olympics: Yao would play.

Since February, when Yao suffered a stress fracture in his left foot, ending his season with the Houston Rockets, the Chinese had held their breath over the specter of their most famous athlete riding the bench for the national team.

A six-year veteran of the NBA, Yao is a towering global commodity. But in the Olympics, his value is even greater: He is a reflection of the China that many people here hope the world will see during the Games -- a humble, hard-working superstar unchanged by his vast new wealth. In that way, he personifies for many Chinese the spirit of the nation, which has embraced capitalism even as it has clung to the mantle of communism.

"For ordinary Chinese, who have a very strong concept about their nation, Yao represents China in the U.S.," said Wang Songtao, 27, a Beijing-based lawyer. "He handles national interests and his individual interests well. He always remembers that he is from China."

Even China's president, Hu Jintao, has taken note of the Yao phenomenon. He chatted Wednesday with the basketball star as he visited Chinese athletes training in Beijing for the Games.

"The whole nation is very concerned about your foot. How is it going now?" Hu asked Yao, China's state-run People's Daily newspaper reported.

"It's okay," Yao replied.

Through the decades, China has worried about its image at the Olympics. It boycotted the Games for more than two decades beginning in the late 1950s, when organizers began to allow Taiwan to participate. Later, Chinese leaders fretted over the country's failure to win many medals in sports dominated by the West.

Since China was awarded the Games, Communist Party leaders have been preoccupied with how best to showcase Chinese culture and athletic prowess this summer. But the government has been pushed back on its heels -- forced to defend itself from criticism of its crackdown on political dissidents, its role in Tibet and Darfur, and its effectiveness in handling the Sichuan earthquake.

Yao, with a size-18 shoe planted both in this country and in the United States, is the type of export China is more interested in promoting.

The 27-year-old player was born to two basketball stars whose marriage was arranged by the government, which then measured him regularly even as an infant, predicted his growth and trained him for years. He is not the first Chinese basketball player to make it in the NBA -- that would be Wang Zhizhi, his teammate on the Chinese national team, who played for the Dallas Mavericks beginning in 2001. Yao, however, is the most successful. His earnings in 2007 were estimated by Forbes magazine at $56.6 million.

No matter what his physical condition during the Games, "once he shows up, his appearance will make a difference," said Jin Wenhui, 21, a student at Texas A&M University who is a regular at Beijing's Dongdan basketball courts when in town.

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