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Purge Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Chinese Sport

January 28th, 2010 · No Comments · Football, Government, Sports

The article is published in today’s Global Times.

When Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger visited Beijing last summer, there was one question in his mind. At a press conference, he asked the moderator, Huang Jianxiang, a well-known local football commentator, why China, with so many people, lacked a first-rate football team.

The question was laughed off by the commentator, who replied that it was because “We never had a coach like you.”

But coaching isn’t the core problem in Chinese football. The recent crackdown on match-fixing and underground gambling tells one that the beautiful game has rotten to the core in China.

In the past three months, more than 100 players, club owners and officials have been entangled in the investigation and last week both Nan Yong, vice president of the Chinese Football Association (FA) and Yang Yimin, a senior official in both the FA and the Asian Football Confederation, along with Zhang Jianqiang, FA’s head of referees, were detained by the police for interrogation.

Without waiting for formal charges, the three, who had each served in the FA for over 18 years, were soon ousted by the General Administration of Sport (GAS), the top governing body of sports in the country.

The news came as little surprise to many Chinese sports journalists. Instead of assuming their role as watchdogs by exposing wrongdoing in the sporting industry, they are now reveling in their knowledge of match-fixing scandals.

They’re making appearances in talk shows or shilling new books, enlightening the public about the severity of the scandals and how there’re still “big fishes” out there to be caught. But rarely did these stories that they supposedly knew all along make the headlines of their papers or TV programs.

At the end of 2007, CCTV-5, China’s main sports channel, did a program evaluating the work done by Xie Yalong, then FA president. After the program gave Xie low marks, the FA began snubbing interview requests from journalists representing the channel. The message from officials couldn’t have been clearer, and the media, eager to keep their access, understood it well.

Besides media indifference, the absence of law enforcement and tacit condoning of corruption by GAS are all causes of the ignominious practices in football. Evidence suggests that bribery and match-fixing prevail in the Chinese sporting world.

The current investigation in football was made possible only after top government officials decided that they wanted to “raise the level of Chinese football.” What is happening in football industry could well mirror other aspects of Chinese sport.

Last year, after Ma Yanping, an acclaimed diving coach, exposed that the finals of diving competition of last year’s 11th National Games had been rigged by Zhou Jihong, head of China’s national diving team and deputy director of the National Aquatics Sport Administration Center, officials from GAS soon came into Zhou’s defense. The police were nowhere to be seen.

Asked about the scandal by a reporter, Zhou, who helped China get 7 out of 8 gold medals with her strikingly young-looking diving team at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, retorted, “Which media organization do you work for?”

When addressing the same topic, Xiao Tian, deputy director of GAS said at a press conference that “you can’t say it had been fucking fixed, it’s fucking fake, just because you lost.”

In a post-match interview at the 11th National Games, He Wenna, China’s first trampoline Olympic champion, said that she knew who would win the finals long ago. There was no follow-up investigation and He was later criticized at a GAS meeting for her words.

The same happened at the judo, basketball and football matches of the National Games.

More recently, in the run-up to 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games and Asian Para Games, members of the Guangzhou People’s Congress Standing Committee complained about a lack of information from the organizing committee on the sources and destinations of the funds for the two Games.

It’s reported that the Games cost 200 billion yuan ($29.28 billion) but no official figures have been released so far. Some worry that the lack of information on such a scale of government spending has already led to waste and embezzlement of taxpayers’ money.

It’s interesting to see how this heavy-handed investigation in football will play out, as the results might even shock those who started it.

Sport has long been regarded as a source of national pride in China. But when pride conflicts with laws and ethics and you hesitate, even for a moment, the battle against corruption is already lost.

Related reading:

  • CS Moniter: Is China finally tackling its soccer corruption scourge?
  • South China Morning Post: Another day, another raft of soccer scandals (subscription req’ed)
  • Gongti Legends: Is it all worth it?
  • Global Times: Fair play is sadly missing from Chinese sporting world

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