You know we’re only one year away from an Olympics when a controversial result in a minority sport goes viral on the Chinese internet.
The World Taekwondo Championships took place in Manchester this week, with several Chinese hopefuls in the hunt for medals.
One of them, Zheng Shuyin, reached the heavyweight (+73kg) final, where she faced Briton Bianca Walkden, who was bidding for her third straight world title.
Olympic champion Zheng — who beat Walkden in the semifinals at the Rio Games in 2016 — led 20-10 as the match approached its final stages. But with Zheng repeatedly being pushed out of the ring, she was disqualified for having committed 10 fouls, and Walkden was handed the crown.
But that was just the start.
Zheng refused to leave the arena, with boos raining down from the stands.
Booing reigns out around the venue as disqualification hands Bianca Walkden the victory when she trailed 20-10 to Olympic champion Zheng.
The Chinese fighter refused to celebrate with Walkden when she pleaded with her to join. pic.twitter.com/3PifKNsSM8
— ✌️🏊🏻♂️ 𝗡𝗶𝗰𝗸 𝗛𝗼𝗽𝗲 🇬🇧✌️ (@NickHopeTV) May 17, 2019
Then during the podium presentation, during which both Zheng and Walkden were in tears, Zheng collapsed and lay prostrate on the top step of the podium, though it was unclear whether this was an attempt to block Walkden from standing alone on the top step, or whether her knees had genuinely given way.
“The manner of [Walkden’s] victory via disqualification is not uncommon in the sport but rarely happens in major finals. Walkden capitalized on Zheng’s defensive style with brutal aggression which repeatedly pushed the Chinese fighter off the mat. Although some will question the ‘sportsmanship’ Walkden showed, she fought within the rules.”
In other words, an unsatisfying win for Walkden, but a legal tactic nonetheless.
Expect the Chinese internet to have a very different take, though, with some already berating Walkden on Twitter.
Chinese head coach Guan Jianmin called the result a “big scandal” in the sport’s history. “Our athlete has worked very hard for this gold medal and it was taken away so easily by the referee. This is very dirty.”
Expect, too, CCTV to churn out another revenge/comeback masterpiece a year from now in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics.
And if these two fighters meet again in Japan, emotions will be at fever pitch once more.
Imagine a soccer club in the top domestic league in the world, one that has a reputation for doing things the “right” way, with a benevolent owner beloved by the fans.
Now, sell that club to an owner entirely unknown to the fans, a man whose testimony — provided in a desperate attempt to avoid prosecution for massive bribes he admitted to having received — sent two men to their graves.
Next, sell your best player.
Then, announce a new main club sponsor, whose touted product doesn’t even exist yet.
Hardly sounds like a recipe for success, does it?
But that’s the situation facing Southampton FC in the English Premier League, whose fans were left with yet more questions this week after Chinese owner Gao Jisheng — he of the checkered past (see above) — signed a “record” front-of-shirt deal with Chinese company LD Sports, which appears to have a landing page on the internet, and pretty much nothing else.
According to the official release, “LD Sports is a brand new sports content, marketing and entertainment platform, which is launching this summer for the Chinese market.”
Call me skeptical, but this deal won’t last its reported three-year term.
It’s worth recalling the words of former owner Katharina Liebherr, who, when she sold 80 percent of the club to Gao in August 2017, said, “Mr. [Gao Jisheng], and his daughter, Mrs. Nelly Gao, with whom I have built a close relationship, share our values and ambitions.”
What exactly are those values and ambitions?
No one has any idea, because the owners never speak in public.
Nelly — with whom so much trust was placed — continues to post infrequently on Instagram, but those posts typically concern her luxurious lifestyle in various corners of Europe, with the very occasional football clip.
From the outside, at least, here’s a Chinese owner attempting to run the club in the most opaque way possible, with little attempt to learn the cultural values of the 133-year-old club and fanbase into which he has bought.
It’s in stark contrast to Chinese conglomerate Fosun, owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers, who, while very much in charge of things at the club, have also made creditable attempts to understand the local culture, rather than imposing a Chinese-style of management.
One Chinese journalist attempted to find out more about LD Sports this week and was told by Southampton’s Chinese representatives that the company’s online presence in China was actually an unconnected Taiwanese company, when the similarities between the logos were plain for all to see.
Why does this matter?
Are these sponsorship deals legal? Sure – as long as the companies themselves don't get shut down. But teams and federations should start thinking a little harder about where they get their money from, because some of these endorsements can look very bad indeed. [End]
— Mark Dreyer (@DreyerChina) May 16, 2019
It matters because the company a club keeps reflects its true values.
Southampton has long talked about doing things “the Southampton way,” which while not exactly defined, typically relates to building success, rather than buying it, based on the underlying foundations of faith in the club and belief in each other.
But it’s clear that this is now little more than a slogan.
According to local paper the Daily Echo, the club “had been weighing up the possibility of accepting a lucrative sponsorship deal from a betting company, but felt uncomfortable with the moral implications of such a move.”
Given that the LD Sports deal is their biggest in history, the lucrative side of things has been adequately addressed elsewhere.
Other than that, it’s hard to assess the moral implications of a company that doesn’t exist.
Unfortunately, suspect sponsorship deals like this are happening more and more often.
Last week’s column mentioned the Curling World Cup, at which the Chinese men’s team made the final, losing 5-3 to Canada.
But what it didn’t address was one of the sponsors.
[Thread] Check out this shoe. Look familiar? pic.twitter.com/KE3XeP3R9e
— Mark Dreyer (@DreyerChina) May 16, 2019
Front and center throughout the competition was New Balance parasite brand NewBailunLP, whose shoes are virtually indistinguishable from their American counterparts.
Due to China’s, er, “unique” legal environment, NewBailunLP has somehow been able to argue in the courts that it doesn’t infringe on New Balance’s IP, and is in fact a totally different company.
That has allowed it to grow to the stage where it is now sponsoring international competitions, and, in effect, being legitimized by the World Curling Federation, the sport’s governing body.
It’s a worrying trend: the International University Sports Federation, FISU, has taken sponsorship dollars from Jordan rip-off brand, Qiaodan, in the past.
Sport has long been touted as having a higher purpose, able to bridge nations in otherwise unattainable ways — the ping-pong diplomacy of 1971, for example, or the dramatic scenes at last year’s Olympics, where the two Koreas marched together under the same flag.
But clearly for a growing number of federations and clubs, it’s just about the money.