Found out in translation
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For a country with 199 gold medals at the Asian Games last month, a harmless poser thrown at some of the Chinese youngsters at Guangzhou caused plenty of head-scratching and then some consternation and finally heartache. The simple question was, which was their favourite Chinese sports team — though they seemed to assume it was some sort of an insinuation from a citizen of India, itself a very modest nation in the sporting world in comparison. In my defence, this "favourite team" question was sandwiched between who was their favourite kung fu hero, Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, and which was their favourite Chinese green, pak choi or broccoli? The head-scratching started after I looked unsure at their most common reply, table tennis. Consternation took over when I raised my voice, believing they had not understood the question, and screeched, "Team, team, team." Heartache was writ large on one Chinese face after another when, like some cocky quizmaster, I waved aside table tennis as a wrong answer with what must have come across as an offensive indifference to their beloved sport in which they had swept all the seven gold medals available. Never did not knowing the local language hurt as much as in those moments when something as basic as the definition of "team sport" was getting lost in translation. Trouble was Indians don't think much about sports that have less than 11 in a side when they think "team sport". The Chinese, meanwhile, can be content in thinking that their paddlers — men's singles and doubles, women's singles and doubles and mixed doubles — who have dominated the sport for years now can nicely constitute one big, happy, winning "team". And given their success, perhaps you can't blame them for thinking so. But at the outset, I'd bargained for a toss-up between football and basketball for their favourite sports team. Not a complicated format of tallied results of many individual matches taken into account between players of two nations — likewise in badminton, shooting, archery and every sport that can be moulded into a team event — and that can be tweaked to suit different organising committees.Bigger trouble for China though was that this sporting superpower with its staggering medals tally at the Beijing Olympics — tipped to top the table at London in two years time too — struggled at the global altar of team sport; or the idea of team sport with many players and one ball that we have come to believe conventionally. Its men's football team then was in shambles after a series of corruption scandals and a largely young and inexperienced unit taking the field, and losing promptly to some of its smaller neighbours and arch-rivals in East Asia. Basketball, after some bad press for an on-court brawl with visiting Brazilians, followed by a defeat, earlier in the year, was still to redeem itself through a gold medal at the Asiad, but China was still some distance away from being a world power to reckon with like the Europeans, South Americans and the US. Ditto for handball. One reason why Chinese women's volleyball is venerated across the length and breath of the country is that it remains a rare "team" unit to have tasted success with two Olympic titles, the last being in 2004, and half-a-dozen world titles through the 1980s and 1990s. It was the first-ever global success for a Chinese "team", and according to Matt Horn, a professor of English at one of Guangzhou's broadcast institutes, the 2004 gold medal remains popular in language essays on their favourite sporting moments for a Chinese "team".Even as the stupendous growth in sporting achievement for China — as reflected in medals at the ultimate quadrennial — has come in individual endeavours like swimming, diving, gymnastics, badminton, canoe, kayak and myriad other Olympic disciplines as a single athlete or the pairs, the country senses a hollow emotional space to slot that one team sport the Chinese can root for that could claim superiority globally. Filling football stadiums hasn't been difficult in China as several marquee European clubs visit their shores, but the nation craves a team of its own that can evoke the sort of sentiment that only team sports can.Indians, then, should consider themselves lucky and generally inhabiting a happy space in this regard. There was always the hockey since Independence for the populace to feed off, and draw pride from. And cricket more or less pervades every emotional crevice now, where sporting achievement can be equated with a collective self-esteem, even though the sport has well-defined roles, each task etched out individually within a team dynamic. That apart, India's Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi after the Krishnans and Amritrajs have kept afloat the nation's presence in the Davis Cup in tennis's team event that has greater following than badminton can manage globally. So even as India celebrates Abhinav Bindra, Vijender Singh, Sushil Kumar, Saina Nehwal and a host of its individual champions in a year replete with such achievements across disciplines, it can smugly claim it has never felt the absence of a favourite Indian "team".