How the ‘basket brawl’ became the new metaphor for US-Sino relations

By J Brooks Spector 22 August 2011

When Pierre de Coubertin launched the International Olympic Committee in 1890, it’s rumoured that among his ideals was to have sport serve as an alternative to warfare. Things haven’t quite worked that way since, have they? Is it fair to expect sport to replace diplomacy – especially when rules are unwritten and referees don’t exist? J BROOKS SPECTOR asks some tough questions.

Ever since Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai’s China, sport has occupied a special niche in international diplomacy. Though maybe intended to, the Olympics haven’t quite replaced warfare. During the Cold War, Americans and Russians battled it out on the basketball court, the hockey rink and anywhere else they could – when they weren’t boycotting each other’s Olympic Games entirely. A Russian-Hungarian water polo match at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and a Czech-Russian ice hockey face off after Russian tanks squelched the Prague Spring are other examples of international politics’ infiltration of sports. And no South African can be immune to understanding the impact of sports boycotts and isolation with the rallying cry: “No normal sport in an abnormal society”.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the tensions of the US – Chinese relationship now have their counterpart on the basketball court. In what has been dubbed the “basket brawl”, Georgetown University’s Hoyas (Greek for “The Rocks”) faced off against a top Chinese team, the Bayi Rockets. Georgetown is no ordinary team. It competes in one of the toughest university leagues in America. Because of its long-time winning record, it is basketball royalty. And it has an enviable record of graduating superior players like Patrick Ewing, making the term “scholar-athletes” a truth for Georgetown over the decades.

But the Bayi Rockets are no mere pick-up team either. They are part of the People’s Liberation Army stable of top-tier sports teams with a reputation for tough, aggressive play. These PLA teams have been part of China’s heavy investment in identifying and perfecting sports talent, with hundreds of thousands of athletes in schools and training facilities.

The Hoyas-Rockets game was part of a bigger competition that also brought another of America’s most famous teams, the Duke University “Blue Devils”, to China as part of exhibition games and a tourney. And this set of games was part of the events surrounding the visit of US vice president Joe Biden to China. The visit was partly to reassure China that buying (and holding) US treasury bonds was not a mug’s game, to help smooth over a whole range of defence and security tensions, trade and political ructions, and to give Biden a chance to take the measure of Xi Jinping, due to take over from Hu Jintao in 2013.

Maybe they should have stuck with ping pong – it’s safer. Just minutes into the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game, a real punching, kicking, bench-emptying brawl erupted. The Washington Post sports writer Mike Wise saw it this way: “The Great Brawl, of course, was not on Georgetown’s itinerary (on)Thursday in Beijing, just two days after the Hoyas visited the only man-made structure visible from space.

“But the unfortunate takeaway for everyone involved won’t be the awe of man; it’ll be the raw of man, the ballgame turned into an international incident, a cultural exchange, all right  – of overhand rights.”

He went on, “But here’s a theory: Beyond nationalistic pride, a bevy of home-cooked calls that made for over-the-top bad officiating and two teams going at each other physically, the fight was very possibly the result of the perfect storm – a cauldron of history, hubris and the overseas marketing of win-or-die American sports culture. And it’s been percolating for years.”

This fight came just as Biden was responding to Chinese concerns about the US near-default on debt. The Chinese are a humongous holder of US treasuries and even the fear of this turning into worthless paper seems to have well and truly spooked them. The Chinese seem to have put Biden through the ringer. They offered him pork lungs and other unique specialities at a famous fast food café, as well as a (rumoured) clampdown on dissenters while Biden was in the country – just in case his party got any ideas.

Biden and his party had seen Georgetown on the court against a Chinese team already. Is it too much to wonder if this basket brawl was a none-too-subtle message to the Americans about taking China for granted? Or was it just 10 charged-up guys trying to win and that it just got way out of hand? Regardless, full-court press basketball is the new metaphor for US-China relations. DM

Read more:

  • Biden Abroad on Politico website;
  • Biden says China, US share global responsibilities on AP;
  • Georgetown’s basketball brawl in China erupted from complex mix of history, hubris and culture in The Washington Post;
  • From ping-pong diplomacy to basket-brawl: What the Chinese-Georgetown fight reveals in The Washington Post;
  • Georgetown basketball exhibition in China ends in brawl in The Washington Post;
  • A Basketball ‘Friendly’ Fouls U.S.-China Mood in The Wall Street Journal;
  • After Brawl, China Irked by Its Basketball Team in The New York Times;
  • Detente Rules In China: Georgetown, Chinese Teams Make Up on the NPR website;
  • Joe Biden’s Visit to China Already Producing Bizarre Moments in The Atlantic;
  • U.S. vice president on charm offensive to assure Chinese hosts that the U.S. economy is getting back on track at the Global Post website;
  • Georgetown, China’s Bayi attempt to make up after nasty brawl on basketball court in The Washington Post;
  • Georgetown, China basketball coaches and players meet a day after on-court brawl in The Washington Post.



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