China Sports Column: Yao Ming’s ‘promotion’ and Stephon Marbury’s balls

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

The Chinese sports world can be so bizarre that sometimes it’s hard to know what to believe. In soccer, authorities regularly hand out punishments and suspensions that bear no relationship whatsoever to the purported crimes, while a report earlier this year that players were forced to cover any visible tattoos seemed over the top even by Chinese Football Association (CFA) standards — but turned out to be true.

Common sense, in other words, isn’t always a safe way to judge what is real and what is not.

One reporter, however, appears to have allowed his imagination to roam a little too freely in printing a claim that NBA legend Yao Ming 姚明, who became head of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) last year, has impressed officials so much over the last 18 months that he’s apparently in line for a promotion — in soccer.

Yao had received glowing headlines when the men’s national team won gold at the Asian Games earlier this month, with heady talk of a Chinese basketball renaissance after China had finished a disappointing fifth place four years earlier. In truth, it was less of a revival than simply a reversion to the mean, given that China had won seven of the previous nine tournaments. But some have instead chosen to hype his limited success.

Last week, the South China Morning Post published a piece with the title “Yao Ming could take charge of Chinese football following Cai Zhenhua’s exit, say reports,” although it could have done with a little fact checking over those “reports” before going to print. When asked about the story the following day, a CBA official curtly dismissed it as nothing more than “fake news.”

Yao Ming

While Yao has done all the right things since joining the CBA, it is, of course, ludicrously early to proclaim him the sport’s messiah, let alone think that he could transfer any skills he has picked up in basketball administration to another sport in which he has zero experience. It’s unclear if — in this parallel universe — Yao was supposed to have doubled up by running both the CBA and the CFA, or simply swapped one sport for another, but either scenario would be equally idiotic.

That’s not to say that there isn’t precedent in this area, though.

Cai Zhenhua蔡振华, the man whom Yao was supposed to be replacing, is a former table tennis champion turned sports administrator, who has presided over the Chinese Badminton Association, before a switch to the Chinese Table Tennis Association. He then took the reins at the CFA while retaining his ping pong duties.

To no one’s surprise — except, perhaps, the people who appointed him — his spell atop China’s soccer kingdom didn’t work out very well, and he was effectively sidelined long ago before an even more bizarre move to become vice chairman of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions became official this month.

It’s hard to know which is more surprising — the fact those in charge deem all sports largely interchangeable with each other (at least from an administrative perspective), or that China actually has trade unions at all, let alone a federation of them.

On second thought, maybe the Yao-to-CFA rumor isn’t so strange after all.


Liu Guoliang

Like Cai, Liu Guoliang 刘国梁 is another former table tennis star who’s been moved around a lot at the top of his sport. Last year, he was kicked out as coach of the men’s national team over links to the gambling debt of his former doubles partner, Kong Linghui 孔令辉, who was then coaching the women’s team. That prompted a tournament pull-out from three of China’s top players in protest — but to no avail, as Liu’s suspension was made permanent.

Until now.

A poor run of form from the men’s team saw Liu brought back into the fold this week to head up the Chinese Table Tennis Association temporarily as it looks for a new head to replace Cai, following his removal from all sports duties. Liu posted on Weibo this week that he had would stay with the national team for the next 666 days in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with fans applauding his return.

It’s still unknown whether Liu will take permanent charge after the Olympics, but at least he’s been allowed to stay in his own sport.


In other news, CBA legend Stephon Marbury — who blocked your correspondent on Twitter this week for having the temerity to question (see above) whether 300 million people in China really play basketball — has revealed he’s launching a new glowing basketball that he hopes will literally light up the sport.

In a series of posts and videos on his Instagram account, he’s been showcasing what he calls his “globe ball,” which will go on sale for a shade under $40 — or twice what most of his Starbury shoes go for online. It’s another bold move from a man who’s made China his adopted home despite retirement, but with fans not yet able to test the balls themselves, it’s unknown what the reaction will be once they go on sale in November.


Meanwhile, we’re entering one of the busiest times on the China sports calendar — NHL preseason games are over, but the NBA will be in Shanghai and Shenzhen next week, plus there are several top-level tournaments scheduled around the country, including the China Open and Shanghai Masters (tennis) and the HSBC Champions and Buick LPGA (golf), and more besides.

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The China Sports Column runs every Friday on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina