Monday, January 14, 2008

China '84? (A History Through B-ball)

With Beijing hosting this year's summer Olympic many commentors have -- and for years now -- been declaring 2008 to be something of China's "coming out" party as world power, the kind of transformational event that will perhaps herald the beginning of a "Chinese Century."

But in this article -- really about the emergence of basketball as the most popular sport in the world -- we discover that the Chinese have been using the Olympics as avenue to reinvent itself on the world stage for decades now:

[In 1984] China saw sports as a way to rebrand itself in the years after Mao died. The Chinese Olympics slogan—“Break Out of Asia and Advance on the World”—cap­tured the growing importance of global audiences and markets. When a crowd of 93,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum cheered the Chinese, Heidi Ueberroth remembers, “It was deafening, the kind of thing that gives you chills.”

The NBA is exploding on to that global market right now, which may seem odd to many Americans who seem to have lost some interest in professional basketball since the retirement of Michael Jordan. But Euchner points out that the game has had the fortune of devoted missionaries going back to its founding at a YMCA.

The conventional wisdom among the sport's enthusiasts for the last decade or so has been that the most effective of those missionaries at proselytizing the gospel of basketball has been the '92 Dream Team, which was the United States' reaction to an embarrassing bronze medal finish in the '88 games. The Euchner's article suggests that the story begins at least two Olympiads earlier.

It's all a very interesting case study in the promotion of American "soft power" (something Russia is just learning how to do). The growth of basketball has been largely fueled by the expansion of satellite television in the last two decades, but the success of a few images beamed via cathode-ray across the world has allowed the NBA to gain a footprint in China:

In September, the NBA announced the creation of a Chinese subsidiary. Timothy Chen, a former Microsoft official who heads the new entity, will focus right away on two jobs. First, he will lobby provincial and local governments to allow NBA games to be broadcast on their television outlets as well as the national networks. Second, he will push for the construction of NBA-quality arenas to host NBA exhibitions and even regular-season games.

That's as good a technique for promoting American interests abroad as anything you'll find in Foggy Bottom.

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