Why China is NOT an Olympic Basketball Power?

24 Sep

China’s recent Olympic success continued in 2012 London Games – they finished in the Top 2 in medal standings third time in a row – but they also fielded arguably the worst team in the basketball tournament.
In the previous 5 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, Athens, Sydney, Atlanta and Barcelona they finished no higher than in 8th place.

This begs a question, how can a country with over billion people and a proven track record of preparing athletes in other sports fail so badly at one of the most popular sports in their land?
Why China is not a power in basketball?

From time to time I hear this question and I’ve wondered it myself so I explored it but I think the answer is surprisingly simple and it boils down to the four factors [they are NOT intended to be in order of importance]

  • Height Matters

  • Obviously huge majority of basketball players are tall but even though it’s an universal problem because of “short supply of tall people” it’s not an equal and fair playing field. According to various sources China is on average among the shortest nations in the world and none of the countries in the bottom third has a good basketball team on a world stage (Nigeria qualified for the Olympics but they were also a cannon fodder for other teams). In other words, population of very tall people is very limited everywhere but chinese men have a lower starting point which makes it even harder for them to grow up to typical heights for basketball.

    How does it work and why is very nicely explained at as a lesson in Statistics for Average and Standard Deviation which makes it even better. Just an example…

    It turns out that men’s height falls onto what’s called a standard distribution, or a gaussian curve, or a bell curve. Out of one hundred men, about 2/3 of them, about 68, are between 5’7″ and 6′. About 2/3 of all American men are 5’10” ± 3″. About 1/3 of them are outside this range, with about half of those on each side. So, about 1/6 are 6’1″ or taller, and about 1/6 are 5’6″ or shorter. If we start looking for men who are much taller than 6′ tall, we find that as their height goes up, they get more and more rare.

    There are just about exactly 100,000,000 adult men in America. Now that we know their average height is 5’10” and the standard deviation is 3″, we can predict how many of these men fall into various height categories.

    While no country can do much about it outside of illegal experiments with human DNA China even worsened this problem…

  • One-child Policy

  • I don’t want to make it a political or moral discussion but China’s attempt to lower population by law also had to affect their national basketball team.

    Why does it matter just take a look at the Team USA where there were only two single children (LeBron James and James Harden), three other players were the oldest kids in the family (Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams) while all others probably wouldn’t be born in China because they have older brother[s] (Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Andre Iguodala) or sister[s] (Anthony Davis, Kobe Bryant). Just like that a lot of talent would be gone. I would like to make it a broader study but data seems scarce but I doubt it would change the point that you just can’t cheaply force mother nature to deliver the best athletic specimens in the first attempt and because of the height basketball players almost by definition are nature’s outliers anyway.

    I’ve read there are some exceptions to this rule for the tall or very athletic people but this approach basically destroys all the possible advantage China could have thanks to it’s population’s size.
    And it’s not the only obstacle…

  • Race Matters

  • “Black people dominate sports in the United States. 20% of the population and 90% of the final four. We own this shit. Basketball, baseball, football, golf, tennis, and as soon as they make a heated hockey rink we’ll take that shit too.” – Chris Rock

    While it was a joke and Chris Rock obviously exaggerated it is a good observation and facts are really simple. From recent NBA’s Racial and Gender Report Card

    In the NBA, 83 percent of the players were people of color, an increase of one percentage point from last year’s totals. This represents the highest percentage of players of color since the Racial and Gender Report Card began reporting the composition of the NBA teams. The percentage of African-American players increased by one percentage point to 78 percent, equaling the highest since 2001-02. […]
    At 17 percent, this was the lowest percentage of white players since the Racial and Gender Report Card began reporting the composition of the NBA teams.

    Whatever the reasons behind this [which in itself could be an interesting topic] China’s population of black people is miniscule at best so again, a huge chunk of possible top basketball players are not available to them despite massive population. I wonder, how would team USA play with only white players?

    There are countries which manage to play well despite that like Spain or Russia or even Lithuania because of another important factor…

  • Training Matters

Aforementioned countries and some others including USA have a semi-natural evolution-like path from kids to the pros but Chinese officials approached it with the sheer force of numbers [people and training hours] and without any regard to the nuances and while it seems to work well for swimmers or gymnasts it’s not for basketball. How is it a problem in this sport was well covered on so I’ll just quote it.

Talent is scouted early. Government scouts roam the country, looking for tall kids that have tall parents. One trainer told Sports Illustrated, “We X-ray their hands, when they’re quite little and from the length of the bones we can predict how tall they will grow to be.” Children that are selected are placed in after school programs. If they show promise they are placed in full-time, live-in sports academies.

But it raises the same uncomfortable question that Yardley’s main character… can’t shake: Why is it that a nation of 1.4 billion people and several hundred million basketball fanatics has never produced a single creative, world-class point guard? In other words: Why are there no Jeremy Lins coming out of China? The answers lie in the murky labyrinth of China’s elite sports system, which Yardley — a former New York Times bureau chief in Beijing — explores during his season with what was once the worst professional team in China.

One 6-foot-1, 14-year-old boy told the Los Angeles Times, “I was picked out of a line up in the second grade. I didn’t even know what basketball was.” Like other promising kids he is required to work out on his days off and vacations. “Even during our day off, we have to jump rope at home and get our parents’ signature to prove it.”

“molten-iron” training, so deeply rooted in the Chinese sports system, provides one clue in the case of the missing point guards. China’s athletic army, much like its mass of factory workers, has been extremely productive, going from five Olympic gold medals in 1988 to 51 in 2008. Yet the rigid training methods, Yardley points out, suppress the very characteristics needed to produce an NBA-quality point guard: creativity, freedom, passion and leadership. One other clue comes when the Brave Dragons’ mediocre point guard confesses to Yardley that he won his position by default when his body didn’t grow as tall as predicted. In a system where players are still recruited solely on the basis of projected height — preferably 6-7 or taller — Jeremy Lin never would have played basketball in the first place.

So to recap, China can’t grow at will tall or black people and they even limited the upside of having massive population by law. On top of that they reportedly train badly those few tall players they have.
Do those 4 points explain why China is NOT an Olympic Basketball Power? Have I missed anything?


Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Unanswered Questions


Tags: , , , , ,

6 responses to “Why China is NOT an Olympic Basketball Power?

  1. Leszczur

    September 25, 2012 at 13:53

    When you have a look at FIBA rankings for men – China after London 2012 is ranked 11th.
    In football – it’s 78th. And volleyball – 15th.
    I would argue that it’s not that bad. But if you ask “why they are not higher?” I would offer that explanation:
    To tackle the problem of short supply of world class players in China you have to take into account three factors:
    1. Supply of “raw material” i.e. tall people
    Even if Chinese are on average one of the shortest nations in the world – the sheer number of population (and assumed normal distribution of height within) should provide them with tens if not hundreds of thousands of potential players. So I would argue that China does not suffer from lack of height. And even if they did – there shouldn’t there be plenty of smaller guards to choose from? And yet – there seems to be nothing.
    That takes me to first conclusion – that height or rather genetic predisposition is nothing without the factor of…
    2. Nutrition
    World class athletes (especially in NBA) are generally individuals who were not malnourished in their childhood.
    And even if overall undernourished population in China decreased between 1990 and 1999 the problem still persists and affects about 10% of the population (source:
    But even if we take that into account – supply of tall and well nourished athletes should not be such a problem. Perhaps it’s an entirely different problem? Maybe that’s what I would call…
    3. Collective mindset
    This clip (taken from a documentary) provides some insight on the training methods used in China to manufacture potential gymnasts:
    Such methods (shocking for Western world) are effective enough in some individual sports. But not the team sports.
    So perhaps team spotrts are just not their thing? Yet….

    • wiLQ

      September 27, 2012 at 18:43

      I’m sorry for the delay but wordpress counted your comment as a spam ;-)
      Good point about the nutrition though I’m not sure it works well as an explanation – I doubt all NBA players ate well as children in ghettos and it didn’t stop them.

      And how are those methods shocking for the western world? For example, Gabby Douglas is sixteen, you don’t think she had to endure some serious practices before 8th birthday? She started at six…

      “So perhaps team spotrts are just not their thing? Yet….”
      Maybe, but what will they do/change if it becomes their thing?

      • Leszczur

        September 28, 2012 at 09:59

        Good to know they have such sensitive filters ;-)
        Nutrition in US on average is way higher than in China. Even if we discount the junk-food – the accessibility and affordability is better in the States. Even if the factor of nourishment won’t cover all cases and there are athletes with a very difficult background in US – in my opinion it plays a major role in differences between those two countries.
        As for the training practices – what is shocking it’s not the age children start to be trained – it’s the way they are treated during the training.
        Any individual who would try to use Chinese methods in US – would be sued by parents, children protection agencies, and would end up in jail. Sport is a way out o poverty in most countries – only countries like China took it to the next level.

  2. Yu-Hsing Chen

    May 28, 2013 at 10:47

    I think there is another matter in that relative time need to be considered here, guys who are 30 some years old today were born into a China that’s barely better than North Korea, guys who are 20 some years old are born into a China which was getting a little better but still nowhere near today’s term. (and even today, by a pure GDP per capita POV China is still poorer than Lithuania, for example.)

    Give it another 20-30 years and it’ll probably change a lot anyway. but Certainly most of the things you mentioned are true to an extend, the height part though is highly distorted by generation (again, a height thing.), in the same way that South Korean young men today are something like 10 cm or more taller than their Northern counter part. and region.

    If anything though, the height part is actually secondary, as noted China has produced at least one center who’s a star caliber NBA player and a couple more that was in the league, its more that the fixation on height screws their development. and that they should just stop with the institutionalized development for this sort of sports at least until they’re much closer to 18 than not.

    • wiLQ

      May 30, 2013 at 12:17

      Thank you for the unique perspective!
      I didn’t know that height is highly distorted by generation – is there a data about it somewhere?
      But overall I somewhat disagree: most American NBA players also come from poverty!
      They view basketball as a way to escape, the same thing could happen in China, right?
      I don’t know how it works financially but I would guess it’s still better to be at Chinese basketball camp than working at the family farm or something like that.

      • Yu-Hsing Chen

        May 30, 2013 at 15:28

        I don’t have a figure from China, but in nearby Taiwan, the difference is 4 cm between 20 year old men from 1994 to 20 year old men in 2008, but Taiwan in 1994 was already wealthier than China today.

        Most NBA players in the US are not from wealthy family that is true (though that seems to more or less just reflect that most black families aren’t wealthy. from what I can see most White players are from middle class or above. ) but poor families in the US don’t really suffer from malnutrition, everyone knows that, if anything most eat too many junk food. There’s a pretty significant difference there. 30 years ago in China, meat wasn’t even a stable diet outside of maybe the biggest cities. certainly it wasn’t 50+ years ago in Taiwan.

        This isn’t really ground breaking news here, human today are alot taller on average, Americans today are much taller than Americans of George Washington’s days, most study in Taiwan / Korea / Japan saw an average height increase of nearly 10 cm in the last 3-4 decades, now this is the AVERAGE , which means that the jump between generation must be far higher. China is starting to see this jump now, later than the rest, for the obvious reasons.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s