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Li Na One Of Few Athletes To Break From China's Sports System


The U.S. Open is underway in New York. The top tennis players from all over the world are competing. On the women's side, Li Na of China, the sixth ranked female player in the world, today advanced to the fourth round with a win over Laura Robson of Britain. Li Na has had a remarkable career. She won the French Open in 2011, making her the only athlete from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title.

She's also the third highest compensated female athlete in any sport. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about Li is that she has achieved that success after breaking with the Chinese state sports system. That's a rarity for Chinese athletes. For more on this, we turn now to Brook Larmer. He recently wrote about all this for the New York Times Magazine and he joins us from Beijing. Welcome to the program.

BROOK LARMER: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And describe the Chinese system to us. How does China typically manage its athletes?

LARMER: Well, this is a sports system that was modeled on the Soviet system. Basically it's a massive system for recruiting athletes at a very young age in which the coaches dictate the training schedule, the sleeping schedule and purloins a very large part of the earnings that any athlete might win.

SIEGEL: Most of them, I gather, more than 50 percent.

LARMER: That's right. In tennis, in fact, it's 65 percent. And this isn't considered onerous by the state because they've supported these athletes from the time that they were young children. But certainly some athletes, such as Li Na and Yao Ming in basketball, felt that it was.

SIEGEL: Well, Li Na, I've read in your article, was in the state sports system from the age of five. And she ultimately decided to fly solo. What's her deal now with the state tennis program?

LARMER: Well, she's still on good terms with them. The head of the tennis federation created this policy called Fly Alone, Fly Solo policy which keeps her still connected to the system. She hasn't rebelled against the system in terms of defecting to another country or playing for anybody else. But she has the freedom to manage her own career now. She can choose her own coaches. And most importantly, she can keep a vast majority of her earnings, which are enormous.

SIEGEL: We should explain here, the reason that Li Na is the third highest paid female athlete in the world is that she's from China. And when she was playing in that final of the French Open, the audience was enormous in a country that isn't especially tennis crazy.

LARMER: That's right. I mean, there are - 116 million people watched that match, a bigger audience than has watched a tennis match ever in the history of tennis. She was able to capitalize on that afterwards. And she's very cognizant of the fact that her value is not simply that she's a dynamic and interesting personality and a great player, but her real value comes from the fact that she is a face of youth and of this kind of freedom that Chinese youth are yearning for and that advertisers are trying to reach.

SIEGEL: You have written about Yao Ming, the basketball star, and I remember reading a line that a Chinese commentator or basketball person had said about him. He said, Yao Ming is one in a million. That means in China there are a thousand more just like him. I gather that the Chinese sports system doesn't warm to the individual superstar who might in fact be bigger than the game is.

LARMER: Well, on one hand, they love the fact that Yao Ming was able to make it in the NBA. They're very, very proud of the fact that Li Na could win a French Open. On the other hand, this individualism that Li Na especially expresses often rankles authorities. So when she says that she plays as much for herself as she does for her nation, you know, that's a dicey proposition for an athlete who's expected to express just extreme loyalty.

SIEGEL: Brook Larmer, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

LARMER: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Brook Larmer is the author of the book "Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business and the Making of an NBA Superstar." He was talking with us about tennis player Li Na from Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.