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In the factory of giant champions wanted by Mao

by Vito Taormina

I am Yao Ming. That's what everyone calls me, but in America, it should be Ming Yao, because Yao is my last name." These honest words begin the 25-year-old Chinese NBA star Yao Ming's spontaneous autobiography, "Yao: A Life in Two Words," which has deeply resonated with American sports fans. However, a new and controversial book, "Operation Yao Ming," recently released in the United States, is rewriting the tale of this gentle giant from Shanghai, essentially revising history. The narrative suggests that Yao, the towering 2.26-meter centerpiece of the Houston Rockets, may be the outcome of a Chinese government genetic experiment, a guinea pig designed to become a champion before he was even born.

This revelation comes from Brook Larmer, former Shanghai correspondent for Newsweek. In his 352-page biography, Larmer weaves an engaging tale of international intrigue that begins in Maoist China and concludes in the era of globalization. This period sees the multi-millionaire Yao Ming make a "great leap forward," becoming the most famous living Chinese person, as meticulously planned by the old regime and his mother, Fang Fengdi.

The narrative begins on the evening of September 12, 1980, when a baby of extraordinary size is born at Shanghai's Number 6 Hospital. He weighs twice the norm, has a square-shaped head, and his limbs are comparable to those of a three-year-old. But the child's parents, Fang Fengdi, standing at 1.86 meters, and her husband, Yao Zhiyuan, a 2.08-meter giant, are not surprised. As former stars of Chinese basketball, they understand that their baby is the culmination of a well-devised plan. "The experiment had no name," writes Larmer, "but was initiated when President Mao Tse Tung urged his followers to channel the most genetically talented youngsters into China's burgeoning sports machine." This is confirmed by Yao Zhiyuan's teammate and Yao Ming's later coach, Wang Chongguang: "We waited for Yao Ming's arrival for three generations. Hence, I believe he should be named Yao Panpan, or the Much Awaited Yao."

In 1965, at 15, the NBA champion's mother was the city's tallest teenager. Larmer writes, "Fang Fengdi's height caught the attention of Shanghai Sports officials, leading to an unanticipated visit to her family." They prophesied: "Your daughter will bring glory to the national sport," leading to Fang's recruitment by the regime. Under the strict control of the "danwei" (the workplace), she underwent grueling basketball training and at 17, joined the Red Guards' "little generals," becoming a soldier much feared by dissidents.

The end of the Cultural Revolution found Fang back on the basketball courts and, in 1976, following a historic victory against South Korea in the Asian Games, she became a national symbol of Chinese sports. At 28, upon retiring from competitive sports, a noble task awaited her: the transmission of superior genes with a mission to create a super-champion.

In the biography, Larmer states, "The responsibility for arranging marriages between former athletes often fell on the coaches. The girls spent more time with us than their families. Who else could ensure that everything went smoothly?" Wang Yongfan, former head of the Sports Institute, is quoted. The husband selected for Fang by the Chinese officials was another basketball champion, Yao Zhiyuan.

By the age of 13, Yao Ming already stood at two meters. Shanghai authorities required him to leave his parents' house and move into the Sports Institute's dormitories. For eight years, he underwent harsh training under strict supervision from instructors and scientists. Today, Yao confesses, "I didn't like basketball, I wanted to be an archaeologist, but I continued out of respect for my parents." By 2002, Yao had become a Chinese basketball icon. The NBA wisely imported this gentle giant to the United States, funded by Nike, approved by the Chinese government, and blessed by his mother-manager. Today, she and Yao's father enjoy the sight of their son's achievements from their home in an exclusive Houston suburb, a mansion designed for giants.

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