Yao might miss Beijing Olympics

February 27, 2008 2:42:56 PM PST
Yao Ming's season-ending injury has China thinking the once-unthinkable: The host nation's biggest and glitziest star might miss the Beijing Olympics. News of the NBA All-Star center's injured foot hit China heavily on Wednesday, highlighting Yao's role as a face of the games and a symbol of the nation's quest for global competitiveness and international acceptance.

Yao, the world's most recognizable Chinese athlete, is far and away China's most popular sporting star.

While doctors say he should still make the Games, healing is expected to take until around June -- close to the Olympics' Aug. 8 opening ceremony.

"When we heard about Yao's injury, we felt shocked and concerned just like all the basketball fans in China," Bai Ximin, manager of the national men's team told a packed news conference.

"We can totally understand how he feels right now and we hope he'll remain positive and optimistic while receiving treatment," Bai said.

The 7-foot-6 Yao, who was averaging 22 points and 10.8 rebounds, was ruled out for the season on Tuesday with a stress fracture in his left foot, a stunning blow to the surging Houston Rockets.

Bai and the Chinese Basketball Association's deputy director, Hu Jiashi, said officials discussed Yao's condition with China's Lithuanian-born coach Jonas Kazlauskas at a morning meeting. They said contingency plans were being worked out in case he is ruled out of the Games.

Kazlauskas told officials, assistant coaches, and players to "face the reality and have a positive attitude," Hu said. He said the coach had dual lineups and game plans and was prepared to send the team to play with or without Yao.

Spokesmen for the Chinese Olympic Committee said they had no immediate comment.

Yao's injury was a lead item on the main midday national television news report and dominated coverage in leading newspaper Titan Sports, which offered a hopeful note.

"The only thing offering Yao Ming any solace at this time is that his injury will not force him to miss the Beijing Olympics of his dreams," Titan said.

Doctors blamed the injury on accumulated stress on the bone, rather than any single incident. Titan said the true cause was the Rockets' failure to provide a reliable substitute for Yao, forcing him into too much game time.

"In fact, exhaustion was really the major reason behind Yao Ming's injury," the paper said.

Hu refused to blame the Rockets, however, saying: "Injury is unavoidable in any competitive sport."

"The major task is to avoid further injury," he added.

Sixteen members of China's squad -- minus Yao and 6-foot-11 power forward Yi Jianlian of the Milwaukee Bucks -- will gather March 8 for training and play a three-game series against Memphis State, with which China signed an exchange agreement last year.

Yao's backup will probably be former Dallas Mavericks center Wang Zhizhi, the first Chinese player to make it in the NBA who plays in the Chinese league. The team also has center Zhu Fangyu, this year's Chinese league MVP.

China is not considered a major medal contender, but basketball is hugely popular here and Yao's fame ensures the team's progress will be closely followed.

Yao's injuries elicit major concern among Chinese sponsors and television stations broadcasting Rockets games, since viewership tends to fall dramatically when he is not playing. The NBA's office in Beijing, which has proselytized vigorously for the sport in China, said it had no immediate comment.

At a news conference late Tuesday, Yao said the prospect of missing the Olympics was too horrible to contemplate.

"If I cannot play in the Olympics for my country this time, it will be the biggest loss in my career to right now," Yao said.

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