Pi Hongyan: Out of China

Pi Hongyan, world no.4 and top seed for the India Open, reminisces about the famed Chinese system that’s a conveyor belt for champions Dev S Sukumar/ DNA – Hyderabad. Photos […]

Pi Hongyan, world no.4 and top seed for the India Open, reminisces about the famed Chinese system that’s a conveyor belt for champions

Dev S Sukumar/ DNA – Hyderabad. Photos : Badmintonphoto

Pi Hongyan, the world’s fourth-best badminton player, cried on the flight to India. She was watching a movie and the visuals of children born into slums were too disturbing. This is a top-ten player who deals with on-court pressure better than most people on the planet.

But what I liked was the hope that the boy had,” she said.

Hope has always been her most precious commodity. Back in her teens (she’s now 30), when she was at the national centre in Beijing (for juniors), training eight hours a day, six days a week, for two years straight, the only thing that kept her going was hope — hope that she would someday break into the national squad. That was the meaning of life for her and her classmates.

The training was hard,” she says, relaxing at a hotel in Hyderabad. “We had one free hour a day. I was staying away from home, couldn’t meet my parents often. Initially it was difficult, but then I got used to it. Did I get bored? No, because I loved the game. And when you have hope, when you dream of playing for the country, you don’t get bored.

Hongyan is often referred to as the ‘French player of Chinese origin’. She’s among the early generation of promising Chinese players — Germany’s Xu Huaiwen is another — who left their homeland to play for other countries — a practise initially frowned upon by Chinese authorities. Top-level women’s singles has long been dominated by Asians — with just a few guest appearances by Europeans such as Camilla Martin and now Tine Rasmussen. Hongyan’s decision to move to France was seen as the beginning of a migration of second-rung Chinese players to talent-starved Europe. The migration never happened in significant numbers, however.

Hongyan was part of the junior national programme for two years. Among her classmates were some who went on to become world and Olympic champions. But Hongyan could never reach the top-8 and was told she wouldn’t be good enough to crack the senior team. That’s when she decided to move. She played for a club in Denmark for two years before shifting to France in 2002, and the move paid off with her breaking into the top ten. She’s now one of the most consistent players on the circuit. Much of her success, of course, is due to the rigorous training of her early years.

In China, if a coach tells you to do something, you do it, no questions. In France, a coach asks you to do something and then enquires about how you feel. But you can’t produce champions that way. I’d prefer a middle path, taking the best of both systems, with hard training and concern for the well-being of players. I think even the Chinese coaches these days are taking into account modern methods, but I’m not sure. I was there nine years ago, it’s a long time back.

With the Chinese sweeping all five events at the 2009 All England, the world has wondered awe-struck at the system they have in place. Most critics however refer to the downside of their system — the high incidence of injuries and mental trauma that isn’t known to the outside world, and which would make that system unacceptable in democratic societies. “I know,” she says. “My best friend had to drop out because of an injury. And she was better than me.

I asked her if she, as a teen, ever wondered if all the hard work was worth it, whether playing for the national squad was worth the years away from home, the risk of injury and the pressure of having to prove herself in a mass of potential world champions. She never understood the question. The prize of playing for the country, and the meaning of all the hard work, was an ideal (of real or purported value) that the Chinese system needed — to justify itself. That she was touched by the Slumdog story makes one wonder if it in some way connected with her own: the need for hope, with escape as the metaphor.

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