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For Chinese Athletes, Western-Style Perks

Sponsorships, Bonuses Showcase Shift to Capitalism in Sports

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As China embraces capitalism, its athletic teams, like divers seen here at Tsinghua university in Beijing, are bombarded with a changing philosophy and psychology of sport.Video: Maureen Fan/The Washington PostEditor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com
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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 28, 2008

BEIJING -- As China embraces capitalism, its athletic teams are cashing in.

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The national men's field hockey squad, for one, has been eager to collect. Twenty years ago, before the rise of China's market economy, the team didn't stand to win prize money or sponsorships. Competitions were for the glory of the country, not the kind of fame lavished on athletes in the West.

Today, with the Olympic Games in Beijing less than four months away, the team is sponsored by Nike. It has an expert coach from South Korea, expensive protective equipment made by a U.S. firm and access to a professional psychologist through the state sports administration.

"Commercialization of sports is unavoidable," said Zhu Zhenhui, a former provincial league soccer player and now a doctor for the field hockey team.

Attitudes about sports in China have undergone a dramatic shift from the days when the government focused on collective gain rather than individual accomplishment. Those changes have helped foster the development of a new kind of athlete, one whose sacrifices result in fame and fortune -- and, if the athlete has a distinct personality, national celebrity.

Corporate sponsors, enticed by the huge market potential in a country of 1.3 billion people, have been quick to see opportunity.

The shift spans the panorama of Chinese sport. Tennis players who once barely eked out a living can now earn as much as $100,000 a year. Even the lowliest college team is part of a tiered economic system of sponsorships, incentives and bonuses. In Beijing, the University of Aeronautics and Astronautics track team is sponsored by a tire company. One distance runner said he stands to receive a bonus of more than $14,000 if he wins at the national level.

Such amounts might seem paltry by U.S. standards -- American swimmer Michael Phelps will receive $1 million from Speedo if he wins seven gold medals this summer -- but they're not trivial here.

"It's good for athletes to become stars. Society progresses," said Sun Jinfang, a well-known volleyball player in the 1980s who heads the National Tennis Administrative Center. "In my time, people called for you to sacrifice unselfishly. It's impossible to have the same idea nowadays."

The shift to individual achievement -- and acclaim -- has also had a downside, particularly in a country hypersensitive about its image. Some athletes are being seen as downright spoiled.

Guo Jingjing, a star diver who will compete at the Games in August, promotes sportswear, snack food and soft drinks, and is sponsored by McDonald's and Budweiser. She's hounded by the Chinese entertainment media wherever she goes.

This year, Guo broke the tedium of a news conference by ignoring reporters and working on a handicraft project, tying Chinese knots out of silken cord. She referred to a competitor as a "fat Canadian." Her perceived rudeness triggered an Internet fury among sports fans and journalists.


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