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]
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 http://investing.calsci.com/statistics.html 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…
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…
“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…
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 factsanddetails.com 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?