“Li Na and the Politics of Saying Thank You”

A hilarious piece from Evan Osnos about Li Na, the Chinese tennis player who has become a national superstar of the highest order over the last week:

Last year, the eighteen-year-old speed skater Zhou Yang was publicly criticized by a senior sports official because, after winning a gold medal in Vancouver, she thanked her parents before thanking the nation. (The Chinese public jeered at the criticism.)

Li has rarely been so accommodating. “She is the only athlete who has never said thank you to this person or that system,” Chinese fan Li Hongyang wrote this week on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, overstating Li’s independence only slightly. “She is the only one who openly admitted that she competes in the hopes of winning the money. And, yet, among all athletes, she donates the most for earthquake relief in Wenchuan and Yushu”—China’s dual disasters in 2008 and 2011. “She’s sincere, candid, and international.”

She is famously unpretentious. In January, Li defeated world number one Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open and drew laughs from the crowd by mocking her husband’s snoring the night before. Her posts to Weibo are peppered with uncorrected typos (in Chinese, that means the wrong character) and gushing with enthusiasm that contrasts with the solemn portrait of athletes who portray themselves as national treasures. Writing from Dubai over Chinese New Year, she wrote that she was given a glimpse of “a hotel room that costs seven thousand dollars a night. I was told that the bathroom was among the top ten in the world. And the bathtub—it should really be called a swimming pool—can [fit] five people. Unbelievable!”

Li Na mania seems pretty big right now- I even got a text message on my phone from the city government after she won the tournament.


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