Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Two countries, three sports

Three sports: badminton, tennis, table tennis.  Three best known racquet sports with similar origins.  The subjects are how well and popular they are and being developed in different places and why, not about which sport is intrinsically better to justify the big bucks or not because this is largely subjective.

Two countries: China and the US.  To a large extent, also applicable to other countries that are good or poor in these sports.

China is strong in badminton and table tennis since the 1960s, but weak in tennis, recent achievements aside.  US is the opposite.  Why?  To suggest that people from a country or a race can't do well in a sport borders on racism, has no basis in science, ignores history, and have been proven wrong time and time again.

History and tradition certainly plays an important role in how well a sport is taken up by the people, because if you are good today, you are likely good tomorrow.  But it doesn't explain everything.  Until the 1950s, many European countries and the US to a lesser extent were good at badminton and table tennis, with a long list of world champions.  China didn't enter the scene until 1959 with table tennis and didn't compete with the Europeans and Indonesian and Malaysian in badminton until 1980.  Even many years later, the sports still enjoyed very large crowds rarely seen in Europe or the US in 2012.  These two events still fill the stadiums at Olympics among the fastest, just not by the Americans.  The more important question is how do you get back on top?

Professionalization plays a role.  With more money in tennis people in richer countries can afford to train and play for bigger bucks.  But the differences in prizes or interest is not always constant.  The open era of tennis started only in 1968.  Table tennis and badminton leagues have had a long history in Europe and Southeast Asia. 

The deciding factor is how these sports are organized and athletes trained.  The Chinese government invests a lot of resources in table tennis and badminton, due to prior success.  With a large population, coaches who are ex-world champions, and many good training partners, no wonder China's top players are also atop the world.  This kind of positive feedback is well recognized in life. 

Then, why is tennis underdeveloped in China?  China has invested much less in tennis than table tennis, but at least more than a few other countries that are nevertheless much better in tennis.  The reason is that professional tennis is globally organized.  A good player goes to tours and matches all over the world, and he plays and trains with the best all the time, not just with his own countrymen.

Why can't a Chinese do this?  Because to play with the best you need to be at a certain level first.  So in the US you start playing locally with your peers when you are young, and when one of them becomes Pete Sampras, you will be quite good yourself as an adult.  There have never been any internationally good tennis players in China before 2000, so nobody has had a chance, and a positive feedback has never been initiated.  No Sampras' coach either.  It is also more expensive to train and play tennis, and an even bigger investment to send your kids to the US or Europe for tennis schools. 

In the US, it seems that only Asian immigrants play badminton.  Big investments are needed like large indoor courts, and playing badminton is physically demanding and agility testing, so the interest is low.  But table tennis is quite popular, with tables in many households  There are serious local and national leagues in table tennis, assisted by recent Asian immigrants and imported Chinese coaches.

So can China get better with tennis while America (and Europe and others) better with badminton and table tennis?  The answer is yes.  The main reason: the national barrier is artificial. 

1. There is no intrinsic physical difficulty playing any of them for different peoples.  All is needed is investment, coaching, and perhaps a large population for talents.

2. In China, more families will become rich enough to have their children trying out a tennis career.  They can go to Europe or America for training.  If a few Chinese become good and return to China, they can start their own schools to train more Chinese kids closer to home.  A start of a positive feedback loop.

3. American table tennis players are already spending months every year in Europe and China training and competing, which helps their development.

4. These days you have videotapes of every match, so anything a world champion does you can imitate.  In other words, no technique can stay a secret.  In fact, if we discount improvement in equipment, there is little tennis or badminton players nowadays do that their predecessors did not in 1980s.  All the techniques and combinations were already there.  Players of today are better athletes, so with better rackets and strings they serve faster, hitting more winner at the baselines, or jumpsmash winners from the backcourt more easily.  Only table tennis has significant innovations in techniques in the past 30 years.  

5. Chinese investment in badminton and table tennis at the government level is likely going down, relatively speaking, due to a more diversifying interest among the population, which is also aging.  But the Chinese influence will increase the global popularity of badminton and table tennis.

6. There are already promising table tennis players in Europe and the US.  Their success will enhance the sport's image and interest in their home countries.

7. China has had limited success in women's tennis.  If China squeezes further into the tennis world, something that happened to badminton and table tennis 50 years ago could happen in tennis: Western interest in tennis could wane, but compensated by the new-found success in others like table tennis.  

To rise to the top one can be from any country, if the training base is the whole world.  As no technique is off limit to the top players, something extra, however, is required to be the very best.  Case in point: Roger Federer is from a small country and does not look that special physically, yet he is clearly one of the most gifted ever.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Learning from the Americans

When I was in my graduate school in the US in the 1990s, one of my friends asked me whether I would go back to China or stay in the US when I graduated.  I said US.  "Why?"  Without much thought, I said: well, if I stay in the US, my human rights will be violated by the US government; if I return to China, my human rights will be violated by the Chinese government AND the US government.

Looking back many years later, this view still holds true, although the differences between the two have become much narrower, which undoubtedly could affect my next move.  The Chinese government, at least, is not doing anything now it wouldn't do then.  The US government, on the other hand, is clearly doing worse.  The civil liberties and privacy is being restricted and violated, the rule of laws is morphing into a joke, and the Feds can essentially spy on anybody without any courts daring no and jail forever and kill even American citizens without open indictments or trials.  This may be part of my "I-used-to-live-in-a-better-time" syndrome, because I can't be certain that some of them were not practiced in the 1980s or earlier.  They likely were.  But now these deeds are out in the open, challenged in courts but mostly upheld.  So they ARE the established laws in the US.

As an example, in an airport in China 20 years ago, you needed a ticket to get past the security checkpoint.  You still do in 2012.  I was moved by the US airports in the 1990s, when people could greet or say good-byes to travelers right at the gates.  Not any more, and everybody agrees the security screening is nightmarish.  Many people are put on the black-box no-fly list without any warnings or justifications, and many including US citizens are harassed by the customs.  When 911 happened, I thought that the attackers liked to change the US, but only the US government could do it.  Indeed the US government accomplishes what the outsides couldn't possibly do, and in many more ways. 

An interesting aspect is that I wouldn't have known much of it had I not been mostly in the US during this time.  I learn it largely through the English media.  The impact of the Chinese media, distance being a minor factor, is close to nil.  This is because the official media is slow and inept.  It is good only if one can read between the lines or needs a final conclusion.  And the Chinese media remains very locally minded.  There is a vast unofficial media in China, but it is even much less dependable.  There is not a single brilliant or original mind in China regarding social and economic issues in the past 30 years, and China's "Public Intellectuals" can only recite empty stale lines from others. 

The American intellectuals, on the other hand, are light years ahead as a group.  Of course, most of the talking heads on air or cable TV every nights or on Sunday mornings are mere trash or worse.  But one always needs to sift through the sand and dust to find diamonds.  

In the mid-1990s I listened to the radio, which was dominated by the right-wingers.  I thought and still think the Clintons are phonies.  Didn't like CNN then or now.  Foxnews was new, and I watched it despite no liking it either.  Mostly as a way to check out different kinds of people, or just trying to find a gram of truth in the ocean of lies.  A more valuable source of knowledge is the internet.  The ultimate evaluation is based on whether one's viewpoints are backed up by real evidence and history, and predictions or assertions confirmed by later revelations.

Most of the highly scored are those shunned by the mainstream media.  Here is a very limited list of people (some maybe born outside of the US).  Noam Chomsky is the gold standard when it comes to public intellectuals, although he is slowing down.  Glenn Greenwald is active and writes extensively and pervasively about the rule of law in the US.  I also like Justin Raimondo, Norman Solomon, Ron Paul, and Paul Craig Roberts.  I learn from these people and others over the years, albeit not on every subjects from everyone.  Importantly, much of what they write about not only applies to the US, but also serves as lessons to the rest of the world.  This broad perspective is something I find glaringly missing in the past 30-year-long discussions in China.  That generation of Chinese "Public Intellectuals" simply lack a sufficient understanding of the world and its history, critical thinking ability, and vision.  I read on NYT in the 1990s some Westerner commenting that the so-called elites in China either followed the government completely or listened to the US completely.

One person I like who doesn't fit the intellectual label is Jimmy Carter, aka the best ex-president in US history.  He has been advocating for the poor and anti-war since 1990s.  I wonder what he would have done if he were in office.  His own fours years were full of chaos, leaving us relatively little to judge from.  This is what is terribly wrong in America, part I.  Officials don't vote for or say what he believes in when he is in office, only after or before.  Many ex-government officials talk against wars but clamoring for wars while inside.  John Kerry and Hillary Clinton must have been regretting their votes dearly for the Iraq War secretly while running for the presidents later.  Obama must have felt very lucky: if he had been in the Senate he mostly likely would have voted like Kerry and Clinton. 

Four people who I don't like but sufficiently fit the mainstream.  The first is Thomas Friedman, a NYT columnist.  I read him mostly in the mid-late 1990s when traditional media still dominated.  Everything he writes from then till now can be summarized in two sentences: 1. The Earth is flat; and 2. America uses McDonald's to rule the world.  The second is Paul Krugman, who has the similar status in the media as Thomas Friedman before.  He is a typical American liberal who likes to fight the Republicans.  Not a market fundamentalist like most economists, he knows little realities beyond the US.  The third is William Kristol, a neocon.  It was comical seeing him talking non-stop WMD nonsense on TV since 1990s to the Iraq War.  It became a farce when he together with those alike was even rewarded afterward, which indicates something terribly wrong in America, part II.  Responding to his critics, he said something like: feel free to disagree with or ignore me.  One has to admire his thick skin, though.  The fourth is Christopher Hitchens.  He died in Dec 2011 and received a round of eulogies, although he was by no means a pleasant fellow when alive.  His story on Mather Teresa was enlightening, and denouncing Henry Kissinger was a highlight.  His anti-religion stand was laudable, but it gets overboard if you go into other people's worshipping places and debating the issue.  He became sort of a neocon after 2000, a huge turnoff. 

So one can always learn from the Americans, good or bad.