China’s Year in Sports 2019: MMA Champs, Weird Mascots and That NBA Controversy

From doping controversies to triumphant MMA fighters - here's the year in Chinese sport

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5:03 PM HKT, Thu December 19, 2019 5 mins read

China didn’t exactly cover itself in glory in the sporting world in 2019. Sure, there were wins in the International Table Tennis Federation World Cup (a competition they’ve barely ever lost) and in the women’s volleyball World Cup, but the China sports stories that made headlines outside of the country itself weren’t quite so positive, with the biggest being the ongoing Sun Yang doping controversy and a massive US-China bust-up involving the NBA.

That’s not to say the year was without positive stories in sports that other countries actually care about, however. Here’s a refresher of the highlights and lowlights from Chinese sport in 2019.

The NBA Hit a Minor Snag with its China Strategy

You may have heard about this. After years of being held up as the gold standard on foreign brands cracking the China market, the NBA became embroiled in an enormous controversy in October after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted in support of protestors in Hong Kong. Suddenly, the league was at the center of a huge US-China relations spat, with vehement condemnations raining down on them from both sides of the Pacific. And all this just a few days before the annual NBA China Games.


You can catch up on the full controversy here. But two months on, where are things at? Well, NBA games are streaming again in China albeit with some intriguing editing and cut aways, Tencent — who had just inked a major streaming deal with the league before Morey’s tweet — have seen their share price hit, and coverage of the Houston Rockets is essentially non-existent.

Meanwhile, the English Premier League has been faced with a similar situation after Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil spoke out on the plight of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, though so far the ramifications have seemingly been limited to the player and club, not the league as a whole.


It’ll be interesting to see what happens around Spring Festival, when NBA teams and stars have traditionally lined up to send New Year greetings to China and worn special jerseys. The league must be longing for the days when their biggest controversy in China was choosing an “effeminate” male celebrity for their Chinese New Year Ambassador.

Jeremy Lin Swapped the NBA for the CBA

It was against this backdrop that American Jeremy Lin made his debut in the Chinese Basketball Association, having left the title-winning Toronto Raptors for Beijing Ducks in the summer.


Lin wasted little time in ingratiating himself to the locals, dropping soundbites about considering Chinese citizenship, donating 3,000RMB (around 420USD) to good causes every time he makes a 3-pointer, and even presenting controversial swimmer Sun Yang (more on him below) with his sneakers after a game.

As we publish this article, Lin’s Ducks sit second in the CBA, having won 13 of their 18 games so far; Lin has averaged just over 24 points, 6 rebounds, and just over 6 assists a game in the same period.

China’s Men’s Basketball Team Sucked

One more basketball story from 2019 that we can’t ignore: China’s hosting — and ignominious crashing out of — the FIBA World Cup.


China’s men’s team took just three games to exit the main tournament after losing to Poland and Venezuela (and beating Côte d’Ivoire in their opening game).

Yao Ming looked distraught.

…And So Did Its Men’s Football Team

But hey, at least China was present at the basketball World Cup; the country’s men’s football team hasn’t managed to get to the finals of their sport’s equivalent competition in 17 years.

In May, China decided to pin its hopes for the 2022 tournament to Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi, who returned to the hot seat with a cunning plan for making it to Qatar: grant some talented Brazilians Chinese citizenship.

But Lippi barely lasted six months before he abruptly quit once more, with China’s hopes of qualification for the 2022 World Cup hanging by a thread. Seems like if they really want to make it to the tournament, China just needs to speed up its plans to host one.

At least the women’s side remain capable of making it to a World Cup. Unfortunately, they failed to shine at this summer’s tournament in France. With something of an in-transition squad, China scraped into the knock-out stages but were knocked out in the round of 16 as star player Wang Shuang endured a turbulent time, failing to realize her potential on the biggest stage.

That left Wu Lei — who in March became the first Chinese player to score in La Liga — as pretty much the only feel-good football story of the year for China in 2019.

Li Na Made China Proud, Yet Again

It says something that it took a retired pro to give China one of its sporting bright spots in 2019. But few would begrudge Li Na of her place in tennis’ International Hall of Fame, an accolade that made her the first Asia-born player to be inducted.


Li achieved a string of historic firsts during her career, while also becoming a renowned figure for her struggle to play tennis on her own terms — rejecting a state sports system she found stifling to “fly solo.” A pioneer in more ways than one, Li is deservedly a sporting icon.

Zhang Weili Became China’s First MMA World Champion

Another kick-ass woman who made China proud in 2019 was Zhang Weili. After making inroads into the Chinese market in recent years — including with the opening of the world’s biggest MMA camp in Shanghai — UFC welcomed its first Chinese champion after Zhang defeated Brazilian Jessica Andrade in just 42 seconds.


“Thank you, everyone. My name is Zhang Weili, I’m from China! Remember me!” the fighter declared after her win. It seems unlikely that Chinese MMA fans will forget her any time soon.

The Sun Yang Doping Controversy Rumbled On

In less positive news, six-time Olympic medal-winning swimmer Sun Yang was unable to shake off the doping controversy that has dogged him for several years. Sun — generally a heroic figure in China but thought of as a bit of a dick everywhere else — was treated with undisguised contempt by some fellow competitors at July’s World Championships, including long-running foe Mack Horton who refused to take to the podium alongside his Chinese rival.

Sun had previously tested positive for a banned substance in 2014, but international authorities were not informed of this by the Chinese governing body. In November, Sun opted for a public hearing into an alleged missed drug test at his home (one which reportedly ended when his mother took a hammer to the blood sample that’d been collected). As if those events weren’t farcical enough, the hearing was regularly held up due to the poor quality of Sun’s translator.

Love him or hate him, anyone following the Sun Yang drama will still have to wait for a final act, with the verdict from November’s hearing expected in the coming weeks.

China’s Winter Olympics Mascots Divided Opinion

And finally, China unveiled a panda and a lantern as mascots for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. Reactions were mixed, to say the least.

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Matthew Bossons
Nov 14, 2022
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