Sports of The Times


It took a few days for the Spanish slant-eye controversy to ignite as a hot topic here, albeit short of a raging bonfire. Which raises the question: If the Chinese aren’t terribly offended and are not blowing the whistle on the Spanish basketball team, can the offensive gesture be a case of no harm, no foul?

In a photo that was taken in a pre-Olympics advertisement for a courier company that sponsors the Spanish federation, Pau Gasol and friends, winners of the 2006 FIBA World Championship and strong medal favorites, posed with their index fingers pulling back the skin by the corner of their eyes.

This apparently was some corporate executive’s idea of a lighthearted gesture, or a dumb fraternity joke. The photo was published in a popular Spanish newspaper and predictably spread via the Internet. Blogs erupted, mostly outside China. A couple of newspapers — in Britain, of all centers of social sensitivity — called out the Spaniards.

Spain’s men’s team rallied to defeat the Chinese on Tuesday night in the best game of the basketball tournament and spent the next 24 hours trying to explain that it meant no disrespect, without sounding too convincing about just what it meant.

“Funny or something,” Gasol said.

José Calderón, the point guard who plays professionally in the N.B.A. for the Toronto Raptors, wrote on a Web site: “It seemed to us to be something appropriate and that it would always be interpreted as an affectionate gesture. I want to express that we have great respect for the Orient and its people.”

He signed off with a line that — based on the interpretive values of the typical American audience, at least — might have been better off stricken.

“Some of my best friends are of Chinese origin,” he wrote.

They may still be his friends, but they have to wonder how Calderón and the Spaniards could actually believe that mimicking a people’s physical characteristics could be intended as a show of solidarity and respect. These players are citizens of the global basketball community, which now stretches East to West. They should know better.

But what about here, in Beijing? Inside the basketball arena, there was booing Tuesday night. But on the court, the Chinese players, while extending heavily favored Spain to overtime, did not appear extraordinarily provoked.

Chinese Web sites have reported on the issue but without great energy or emotion. In my office Wednesday, the photo was shown to two Chinese staffers. Neither viewed it with surprise or disgust, but more with bewilderment.

A spokesman for the Chinese apparel company Li Ning, a sponsor for the Spanish team, told the Associated Press that it does not "think this is an insult to the Chinese." At the basketball venue on Thursday, the Spanish team was cheered during its victory over Germany.

An American I know who has spent much time here speculated that the Chinese reaction would naturally differ from that of Chinese people living in the West, where, as with any minority, they would understandably be more sensitive to such a display.

And then there is the prevalent perception that people here do not want to dwell too much on anything beyond the Olympics they have been waiting so long for, prepared for so lavishly and organized so well. They want attention focused on the athletes, on the architecture, on the hospitality, not on causes and controversies.

This being the Olympics, where every perceived antisocial slight is recorded and remembered, the Spaniards will have to carry the fallout of the photo around for a while, not unfairly. Context is important, though. There can be far worse demonstrations in the sporting arena, such as the Iranian swimmer who called in sick to his swimming heat, almost certainly to avoid getting into the pool with an Israeli.

That was a truly revolting development, a flagrant foul.


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