When Yao Ming came to the NBA, a billion pairs of eyes watched his every move.
China's precarious position in the political world has brought extra intrigue to the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing. There are talks of boycotts and saturation of the sporting events with political messages.
But the Olympic Games are too important to the world in these times to have politics stop them. Protests are likely, as they should be based on the horrid nature of the genocide in Sudan. But don't let them dominate the headlines. Let sports dominate the headlines.
That's my plea. That's my hope. And Yao Ming helps us understand why.
Yao is not the center of these Games simply because he's the favorite athlete in the home country. It's because he's at the cultural crossroads. Only a man in his position can feel the weight of these Games on his shoulders. He is in a unique position in history.
He is the pride and joy of Chinese sports, possibly the best athlete in the country's history. Yet he's a highly-respected star in America's NBA. The cultural leap he took when he came here was unfathomable. He went from a quiet boy in China to the nation's biggest star to the primary object of scrutiny and fascination in the United States of America.
His arrival at the shores of this country was unlike anything we or he had ever known. We were in awe of this quiet and serene 7'6" giant with a nervous smile and shy eyes. He was not what Americans knew basketball players to be. We knew Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson (or at least that was the image). The ruckus in Space City and all around the nation was unimaginable.
But we got used to him. We began to understand him, and him us. The entire country of China embraced the game of basketball, celebrating more than just their Chinese-born star.
The jerseys they bought weren't just red 11. They were gold 24, wine 23. They accepted parts of our culture, just as we accepted a part of theirs. Politically, there's an undeniable problem. But an entire herd of sports fans in both countries were better than to let that get in the way of something as beautiful as cultural acceptance.
There's a little pseudo-equation I learned back in high school that applies to almost every facet of life: Bewilderment + Exposure = Obvious. We learned it in Computer Science.
We were presented these strange series of abbreviations and symbols, and we were told they did something in the computer. We were befuddled by it, lost in it, absolutely confused. But the more we exposed ourselves to it, the more we'd come to understand it.
And that's how culture works. That's how accepting and understanding people works. When Jackie Robinson first shined in Major League Baseball, people were not comfortable with it. But look what time will do. He just kept playing, and soon, the discomfort and hate turned into praise.
Initially, we see these silly indicators such as skin color and accents and funny customs, and we quickly judge because we just don't know anything else. But when a Russian player lands a perfect somersault and screams with elation, you'll see a human side that will move you a little closer to realizing we're not all that different.
That's what Yao Ming understands. We've gone from seeing him as a spectacle to seeing him as another NBA player we can criticize for whatever NBA players are criticized for, a player we can understand as a quiet and nice person like those we encounter in our own lives. He's not just the amusing character sitting next to Mini-Me in an Apple commercial.
If anything, we understand the Chinese just a bit better because of Yao Ming. We realize that the one billion people who make up their country are not some mysterious, strange group of humans we're pitted against. They are the people we work with, play with, talk to.
Their government, their factories? Perhaps another matter. But understanding the people is a whole other ballgame. You don't want to be lumped into the same category as George Bush, do you?
Yao Ming told the Houston Chronicle something that all people should realize. "I think back to when they started the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. It was a beautiful idea to put people together again, to make friendship and share the honor and share everything. [The Ancient Greeks] stopped wars for the Olympics. They laid down their arms for the Games. Right now, war looks like a part of our life in this world. But hopefully, no wars, no bombs, no gunshots in those three weeks of the Olympics. Maybe it is a dream. It is my wish."
He understands what the Olympics mean. If anything, when we think about viewing China negatively, we should think of Yao. Then maybe we'll realize we should direct our disgust at the Chinese government, not China. That's the sort of realization that just his presence can foster.
When we see the Chinese competing in a sport, I hope we have no tinge of frustration towards them. I hope that protesters don't jeer at them and wave their signs towards them. Not towards the athletes. Not towards the fans. That's not right. That's ignorant.
Politics will show its face, and perhaps rightfully so. The crisis in Sudan is a frightening and disgusting one. Maybe they should pop up. Maybe there should be protests here and there, on this grand stage.
But what I'm hoping for through this article is that they do not dominate, that they do not rule the headlines every morning. Let the athletes rule the headlines.
Where all of the protests and petitions and threats against the Chinese government have miserably failed over the last decade, sports themselves might prevail. Why? Because bewilderment + exposure = obvious.
When in our time do we get to do something like this? When do we get to revel in the purity of cultural immersion, bridged borders, and triumph? When does the news get dominated by celebrating the power of human resolve? Where can so many hands shake that would otherwise never shake?
That's the power of sports, of these Olympic Games. It has the power to bring people together, to foster peace, and once upon a time, to stop wars. What else has had the power to stop wars?
Maybe it'll happen again some day. Until then, let's not do it the other way around. Let's not stop sports for wars.