Benjamin Jacobs, Yale University


The entries of Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian into the National Basketball Association (NBA) shed light on the development of the modern Chinese athlete. After Yao's success in American both on and off the court, Yi positioned himself prior to the 2007 draft to be selected by teams in large cities with equally large marketing potential. Yi initially refused to play for Milwaukee—the team the drafted him sixth overall—and threatened to remain in China, sparking criticism in both china and America. Although he ultimately signed with the team, Yi's actions hint at a new awareness among Chinese athletes of their power as marketing agents. No longer exclusively seen as tools of the state, Yao and Yi are aware of their selling power to their home country. For this reason, a close examination of Yao and Yi will provide insight into a transforming perception of sport in China. Transcending the historical perception of athletic achievement as a public tool of patriotism, Yao and Yi recognize and seek to exploit the commercial power of their physicality. In doing so, they reveal the twofold pressures on elite athletes in post-reform China: to simultaneously balance both commerical and nationalist impulses.

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