French soccer and NBA stars speak out against Uyghur plight

Society & Culture

Several big-name French soccer players have taken part in a social media campaign to raise awareness of China's treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Soccer players support Uyghur
Top to bottom: Kalidou Koulibaly, Franck Ribéry, Ousmane Dembele

A series of high-profile sports stars in France have joined a social media campaign to raise awareness of China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

The campaign was started by French politician Raphaël Glucksmann, who entered the European Parliament last year with the goal of being “the voice of the voiceless people.” He encouraged people to post a sky-blue square (“in Uyghur colors”) on their social media platforms on October 1, China’s National Day.

Several big-name French soccer players answered the call. Current Fiorentina winger and Bayern Munich icon Franck Ribéry, Napoli star Kalidou Koulibaly, and Barcelona wunderkind Ousmane Dembele were among those who posted in solidarity with the campaign.

Ribery, who earned 81 caps for France, posted the sky blue square alongside the hashtags “#freeuyghur,” “#freeuyghurs,” and “#freeouïghours.”

Porto’s French-born Malian international Moussa Marega wrote explicitly about the situation (translated from French): “Millions of Uyghur Muslims are locked up and tortured in concentration camps in China. Not for what they do, but for who they are.”

French-born Algerian international Riyad Mahrez also posted the square. The winger, who plays for Manchester City, which is part-owned by Chinese state investment bank CITIC, was one of a number of players who deleted his post soon after.

Meanwhile, NBA center Rudy Gobert reposted French actor Omar Sy’s sky-blue square on his Instagram story with the caption “wrong is wrong.”

Players in the NBA have seemed reluctant to speak out on the Uyghur and broader Chinese issues after the league was burned last year after Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters. On the other hand, China may have learned from its overreaction to Morey’s tweet — the country has not attacked other sports or leagues in quite the same way.

Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil called for Uyghur “warriors to resist persecution” back in December. The post left his team, Arsenal, and the Premier League scrambling to avoid colossal backlash, but Beijing’s response was muted.

Former Shanghai Shenhua player Demba Ba, during an interview with the BBC, also drew attention to Xinjiang. Again, there wasn’t much of a response — no attack hounds on social media, no scathing editorial in Global Times or other state-media outlets.

Perhaps Beijing is unwilling to dive into another international, highly public row in the sports world.

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Lin discusses crushing anxiety during his time in China

In an interview with Taiwan’s GOOD TV, Jeremy Lin (林书豪 Lín Shūháo) revealed his fears that the CBA would reject him as the NBA had.

“Looking on paper at the season that came and went, I was an All-Star and there are many things that went my way and positive things that happened, but at the end of the day I still struggled with so much fear this past season,” Lin revealed on the Taiwanese Christian television network.

“It was so bad. The opening game was an away game and I was in the hotel, I woke up from my pregame nap and I remember I stood up and I was going to go to the bathroom and I remember all of a sudden I had no energy in my body. I became weak. I just stumbled and I fell back on to the bed and I just crawled up in a fetal position and I just lay there for a couple of minutes because of the anxiety.”

“It was getting to me so badly and I was so nervous for the game. Even during some of the games that I played there were so many times where it felt like I had no confidence.

“I remember one game I had a great game but we lost and one of my teammates had a rough game. I remember going up to him at the back of the bus like, ‘Hey that’s my bad. I should have found a way to get you to play better tonight.’ I just started apologizing for everything, taking blame for all these things and I was just so filled with fear.

“Even after the games I would immediately go on my phone and start comparing to everybody else. I could have had a great game and we won, but I look at the box score of some other game and I was like why couldn’t I have had as many assists as this player or this team’s ahead of us in the rankings.

“Everything came to a peak in January because the way the CBA works is that our team had three foreigners and you can only register two foreigners at a time to play. Because our team lost a lot of our big men to injuries, I had to get rotated out.

“This was when I had to come face to face with my greatest fear as a basketball player: that I would lose it all, completely unwanted and unneeded. Coming off of last summer where I had zero contract offers and I had that feeling where I lost my entire dream and I am completely unwanted, I start to spiral.

“If I get rotated out and they play really well they might not need me and they might not let me get back into the rotation and then maybe Beijing won’t want me as a basketball player any more and then I won’t even be able to play in the CBA because the CBA won’t even want me and then my fans will stop supporting me. I started to think all of these really, really negative thoughts.”

Lin recently confirmed his intention to play in the NBA again after his single season for the Beijing Ducks, where he led the team in scoring (22.3) and assists (5.6).

The interview comes more than a year after he first sat down with the Taiwanese TV station. Lin broke down about his free-agency during that interview following a championship-winning yet injury-afflicted season with the Toronto Raptors.

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Volleyball film Leap outsells Mulan in China box office

Volleyball film Leap

A film that tracks 40 years of the Chinese women’s national volleyball team has outstripped the big Disney production Mulan in the Chinese box office.

Leap, which tells the story of the Chinese women’s volleyball team from 1980 to the 2008 Olympic clash with the U.S., opened to $24.6 million in its three-day debut in China.

Its opening weekend outsold Mulan by more than a million dollars. The Disney picture earned $23 million.

While Leap’s numbers were helped by local regulations that increased the capacity at cinemas from 50% to 75% for the start of the Golden Week holiday, the film’s success shows that Chinese consumers may be gravitating toward well-crafted homemade cinema. Mulan has largely drawn criticism from both Western and Chinese audiences.

But despite Leap being received positively by many Chinese moviegoers, some of the film’s real-life characters have spoken out at their “ugly” portrayals.

Former coach Chen Zhonghe has called his portrayal libelous and insulting.

Leap had been set for release on the big screen during Chinese New Year, but the COVID-19 outbreak delayed it until October 1.


The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.