In the U.S. and Europe, interest in sports can be fanatical. When I worked in New York, for example, all we talked about was the latest Yankees game. The same is true in other cities about, say, a good Bears or Lakers game. It's an everyday part of life.
That has not been the case in China over the past few decades. Sports were played by professional athletes, not by the general population.
Last night, I went to the U.S. vs. Nigeria and Argentina vs. Serbia soccer games. Both made it clear that Chinese fans are getting more enthusiastic about soccer and other sports as the games go on. In fact, with all the face paint and the drunkenness, it felt a lot like Yankee Stadium. The change in Chinese behavior has definitely come from more than the influence of foreign fans and the official cheer captains. I think the games have unleashed a new sense of freedom and desire for self-expression. Chinese sports fans are learning how to cut loose and seem to love being in a venue where they are encouraged to go wild.
I hope their enthusiasm for sports and self-expression continues after the Olympic Games are over.
I think it will, thanks in part to efforts by foreign sports organizations. The National Basketball Association now has a full staff at its corporate office here in Beijing organizing events. And basketball is already popular among youth Chinese.
Several teams in North America's Major League Baseball organization played exhibition games in China last spring. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) is investing time and money in China to grow the popularity of soccer.
These groups will add variety to sports traditionally played in China like table tennis and badminton and encourage participation in new games. They hope to create a whole new industry in China, in which professional leagues can fill large stadiums with avid Chinese fans.
The way my office colleagues suddenly have a new appreciation for sports, it may not be long before I draft my fantasy ping pong team.
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