Coronavirus brings sports in China to a standstill

Society & Culture

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature. Pictured: Team staffer in Yuanshen Stadium in Shanghai on January 27, Getty Images.

The Wuhan coronavirus outbreak continues to affect the Chinese sporting world. The first major Chinese sports league to announce a postponement of activities was the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), and now Chinese soccer has followed suit.

The Chinese domestic league has now delayed the start of the season, which was slated to begin on February 22. A new date has yet to be announced. This decision came after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced that Chinese teams in the upcoming Asian Champions League would begin their games on the road.

A contact in Chinese soccer lamented to me that the virus has completely ruined their preseason preparations and that some of the foreign players in the league have postponed their return to the country.

They also went on to reveal that the current transfer window had been the hardest in their career. The combination of a new salary cap on international players and the current unease surrounding the coronavirus has made signing players nearly impossible.

In women’s Olympic soccer qualifiers, the Chinese national team will now have to compete in Australia. The AFC had originally moved the qualifiers from Wuhan to Nanjing, but now the governing body has moved the tournament out of China completely.

The coronavirus has hit the women’s national side hard, as the whole team was quarantined upon arrival in Australia and trained in isolation.

Soccer was not the only sport seriously affected.

Kunlun Red Star, China’s top ice hockey side that plays in the Russian KHL, has been told that they will play the remainder of the season on the road. Kunlun had played at home at the start of last week and was due to play a final home game before potentially qualifying for the league playoffs, but that final home game against Dinamo Riga will be played away.

In athletics, the World Indoor Championships have been postponed for a year. The governing body, World Athletics, sought the advice of the World Health Organization before making the decision. The championships were originally meant to be held in Nanjing between March 13-15.

World Cup alpine skiing events, which were due to take place in February, have also been canceled. The International Ski Federation (FIS) announced that the downhill and super-G races would be rearranged later this year. The events were set to be at Yanqing, the venue for the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Wang Qiang’s Australian Open run ends

Wáng Qiáng’s 王蔷 impressive run in the Australian Open came to an end on Sunday. The 28-year-old shocked the world and shot into prominence in China after she knocked out Serena Williams in three sets — here she is being name-dropped on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, watched by more than 1 billion people — in the match before.

But China’s top-ranked tennis star could not capitalize on an easy draw against unseeded Tunisian Ons Jabeur, losing in straight sets 7-6, 6-1.

After a tight first set in which both women broke each other in the first two games, Wang slipped behind early in the second set and was never able to recover.

Despite the disappointing loss, Wang will be happy with her performances at the tournament that saw her claim her biggest scalp yet.

“I did a really good job in the third round, but today the performance was not so good,” Wang told Xinhua. “The beginning of the first set, she played not so well, but after that, she played more aggressive and I played too passively today.”

Chinese basketball community mourns Kobe

China loves Kobe Bryant

The shocking death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant continues to reverberate around the Chinese basketball community.

The news became the number one trending story across the country earlier this week, dominating the news cycle and social media, pushing updates about the coronavirus to the side.

Kobe Bryant’s death is top news in China, with one hashtag drawing 4 billion views

Bryant had been the brightest foreign sports star in the country, eclipsing all of his peers in basketball and in wider sports.

While Yáo Míng 姚明 was the gateway for many Chinese basketball fans to the NBA, Kobe was the player that made fans stick around. Bryant had the highest-selling jersey in the country, outstripping Yao, and was the most-followed NBA star on social media, despite retiring in 2016.

Bryant had been at the forefront of the NBA’s expansion into the Chinese market and continued to play a significant role in the country, even after his retirement.

Two days before the tragedy — Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash on Sunday — the former Lakers star was wishing Chinese fans a happy new year on his social media channels.

Many stars in the CBA were quick to post their condolences on Weibo. Yì Jiànlián 易建联, the league’s all-time leading scorer, revealed how Bryant had given him inspiration during a tough injury: “We both suffered a fractured finger. I rested for a month and a half, and you did not rest for a single day. Since then I learned from you what persistence meant.”

Xinjiang Flying Tigers star Zéng Lìngxù 曾令旭 told his followers how Bryant had been the reason he fell in love with the sport: “I watched you challenge Michael Jordan at the 1998 All-Star Game and fell in love with you. You were the reason that I became fond of basketball! For 20 years, you have always been my inspiration… I hope your dear basketball will keep you accompany in paradise. R.I.P. my idol for life.”

For an excellent summary of Bryant’s connection to China, I recommend this piece in Foreign Policy by Lauren Teixeira as well as this summary by Tommy Yang of the Los Angeles Times.

The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.