TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: Beijing's olympic countdown clock in Tiananmen Square is about to click over to 365 days left. The opening ceremony's scheduled for a year from next Wednesday.
China will be the capital of the sporting world for the two and a half weeks the games are on. But Diana Nyad's here to tell us the business of sports in China's much bigger than that. Hey, Diana.
Diana Nyad: Kai, how are you?
Ryssdal: I'm all right. So, even given all the problems that we talked about earlier in the show, with Chinese imports and poison pet food and toys now, American businesses still do want to get into China, and they're doing it increasingly now through sports.
Nyad: Oh, they do in a big way. I mean, if you look at the, sort of the macro picture, you know the economic and political reforms start in China in the '80s. That meant by the '90s, companies were cooking . . . I mean you know, the average Chinese citizen now has much more disposable income than he or she ever had before. And a big thing they're doing with that income . . . I mean, you can go out into the rural provinces, and I know you've been there. You'll see, you know, the old people doing tai chi in the front yard, and it's wonderful. But you go into the urban centers and the young people are joining health clubs.
A health club opens every day in mainland China. One a day. And so there're 50,000 of them right now, and they're just proliferating, and they have personal trainers. So sporting goods businesses — and there are five sort of top companies there — they're gaining, it's something close to 20 percent a year. It's a great investment.
Ryssdal: Who's doing it? Obviously Nike's probably a big one, who else?
Nyad: Nike's been there for 24 years. The most recent statistics I have since 2005, they're gaining at about 19 percent a year. Much bigger than they're gaining here. Spaulding is now the official ball and all kinds of gear sponsor for the Chinese National Basketball team. And so, you know, Spaulding has latched on to the Chinese philosophy of "Let's get out there and have all these young people who want to get into sports in a rabid way, let's get them geared up."
Ryssdal: Major League Baseball is trying to have exhibition games over there. I mean, it's one thing to go do in Japan. It's pretty remarkable, though, that . . . I think it's the Yankees are trying to go and have an exhibition game.
Nyad: Well, you know, the first two Chinese baseball players to ever play in the major leagues are playing for the Yankees. There's a pitcher and a catcher. And the first Chinese company ever to invest in the MLB is with the Yankees, it's a dairy company called Yi Li, if i'm pronouncing that correctly.
So yeah, the Yankees are now, you know, in bed with a Chinese company. And very interested, as is Major League Baseball, interested in going all over the world, that's the whole World Baseball Classic is about. So this past time around, we saw that countries that have been playing for a hundred years — Venezuela and Cuba and Japan — but China is gonna come on very quickly, as they are in all sports.
Ryssdal: Let me get this back to the Olympics for a second. It is now a year until the games start. Obviously, Beijing has known for six or seven years that it's gonna have the games. Has it used that deadline, if you will, as a way to increase its domestic sports development programs with its athletes?
Nyad: You know, it has. Number one, on the sort of human side, not the economic side for a minute. Beijing is being compared a lot to Moscow. And they remind me of the old Soviet machine in that they will now identify young athletes at 4 and 5 and 6 years old, get them into academies, get them into the finest coaching that this planet has to offer.
There's a young woman, Li Na, who's a national treasure at this point. Was a badminton player, converted to tennis — unheard of in our country — and has now reached the quarter finals of Wimbledon, which was last year in '06. And she's been virtually carried around on people's shoulders. So there is a movement toward let's get our athletes at the top wrung of the world in every sport imaginable by Beijing 2008.
Ryssdal: I read on the wires the other day that the Minister of Sports said, "Oh no, no no, we're not trying to beat the United States in a medal count in the Beijing games. You buying that?
Nyad: No, no, no. That's . . . there's gonna be, you know . . . just like we used to do more of, there's gonna be . . . we'll all know how to count in Chinese, let's say, by the end of the games.
Ryssdal: All right, the business of sports with Diana Nyad. Thanks, Diana.
Nyad: Thank you so much, Kai.