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The Diplomacy of Sport

Kinesiology director Li Li Ji is helping to shape a new U.S. cultural center in China

Tianjin University of Sport hosts the new center
Four representatives from China and four from the U.S.
touched a crystal sphere at the center’s inaugural ceremony.
Left to right: Sun Zhiliang, Sport Culture Center director,
Tianjin Education Commission; Sun Daguang, China General
Sport Administration; Tianjin University of Sport academic
council chair Feng Wenming and president Yao Jiaxin; from
the University of Minnesota, senior vice president Robert
Jones, School of Kinesiology director Li Li Ji, and China
Center director Joan Brzezinski; and first secretary Gregory
D’Elia from the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
Photo courtesy Tianjin University of Sport

HUNDREDS OF CHINESE STUDENTS AND FACULTY filled the auditorium of Tianjin University of Sport for the inauguration ceremony of a unique new center that will share U.S. culture through the medium of sport.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy traveled about a hundred miles southeast from Beijing for the grand opening. Leaders from China’s national sport administration and the city’s education commission came to greet the delegation from the University of Minnesota, the U.S. partner university.

The inauguration was signified by the partners’ joint touch of a crystal ball illuminated with the Chinese and English words for “U.S.–China Center for Sport Culture Exchange.”

One of those touching the crystal was Li Li Ji, director of the School of Kinesiology. Today he’s a leading researcher in the biochemistry of physical exercise and movement, an expert on antioxidants and free radicals in the body. In the late 1970s, he was a teacher and basketball coach who got the opportunity to interpret for the first NCAA champion team to visit China after it opened to the West. Ji became the first Chinese national to pursue U.S. graduate study in exercise physiology. Before moving to Minnesota last summer, he started the Chinese Champions program to bring top athletes from China to the United States for graduate study.

Ji’s role in bringing the U.S. State Department grant to the University of Minnesota was key.

“To put a hand on the crystal, to start a new relationship between the two universities in a historic project, that was very moving,” says Ji.

“The American cultural center for sport is a perfect example of the University’s land-grant vision for the 21st century. Our ability to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues will rely on the ability of people from across the world to come together.”
—Robert Jones, senior vice president for academic administration, at the grand opening

Minnesota may seem like a natural partner for a U.S. cultural center in China. In 1979, the University was among the first to resume academic exchanges after China reopened its doors to the West. It has since received more than 8,000 Chinese nationals. Minnesota still hosts one of the largest campus populations of Chinese scholars outside China. In 2009, the U opened its first office abroad in Beijing.

But when the U.S. State Department put out a call to universities for proposals to establish up to eight new cultural centers in China, Joan Brzezinski—director of the U’s China Center—knew the University would have stiff competition.

Then Brzezinski met the new School of Kinesiology director. The two immediately recognized the potential of joining forces.

“The University of Minnesota has the best infrastructure for working with China,” Ji says. “We knew that if we focused on a culture center with sports, we would be very competitive.”

As a Big Ten university with a strong athletic program and history of sports education and research, located in a metro area with five professional teams, the University seemed ideal for such a proposal. Its Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport and Ji’s leadership also set it apart.

For a partner university, they quickly zeroed in on the prestigious Tianjin University of Sport, where Ji is involved with the first U.S.-China science grant in muscle physiology. Tianjin has been a center of exchange with the University since 1981 and is home to many Minnesota alumni. Only 30 minutes south of Beijing by a new high-speed bullet train, the industrial city is fast developing into a cosmopolitan magnet in China.

U School of Kinesiology director Li Li Ji, left, and TUS president Yao Jiaxin
Yao Jiaxin, center, interpreted for U School of Kinesiology
director Michael Wade, right, when he lectured in China in
1989. Yao, now president of TUS, welcomed the current
School of Kinesiology director, Li Li Ji, in March.
Photo courtesy Michael Wade

When Ji announced his new position on a visit to Tianjin last summer, he discovered that TUS president Yao Jiaxin has an old tie to Minnesota.

U School of Kinesiology director Li Li Ji, left, and TUS president Yao Jiaxin
U School of Kinesiology director Li Li Ji, left, and
TUS president Yao Jiaxin
Photo courtesy Michael Wade

“How is Professor Michael Wade?” Yao asked, referring to the School of Kinesiology director from 1986 to 2004. Yao interpreted for Wade, a motor learning and development professor, when he gave invited lectures in China in 1989. Wade remembers Yao, too.

“He traveled a long way by train,” says Wade. “He was a sweet guy, and very sharp.”

Yao’s sport was ping pong. Today he is one of the top sport psychologists in China.

The first Chinese students were recorded at the University of Minnesota in 1914, when the Pan brothers played on the U soccer team.

“Sport is a tie between cultures, without dispute,” says Ji. “It opened doors for new relations between the United States and China in the ’70s and continues to serve as a strong connection between us.”

The new center, located at TUS, will provide programs and resources to show how sport culture and values are integrated into American society, influencing U.S. viewpoints, global outlook, and engagement, from business and politics to arts and communication. Ji looks forward to lining up the first year of program content.

Tianjin University of Sport hosts the new center
Tianjin University of Sport hosts the new center
Photo courtesy Tianjin University of Sport

“Many concepts drawn from sport—such as ‘fair play’ and ‘pursuit of excellence’—are infused in the values and beliefs of Americans, regardless of whether they participate in sports,” says Brzezinski. “The center will help the Chinese develop a deeper understanding of how sport culture impacts all of our interactions, whether person-to-person or country-to-country.”

Nearly a century after the Pan brothers played soccer in Minnesota, the first symposium for the new center focused on the role of women in sports and society.

Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center, spoke on “The Evolution of American College Sport and the Role of Females.” Yang Xiping, sociology professor and TUS vice president, gave a parallel address, followed by a lively discussion with the audience.

“The English fluency and knowledge about American sports in the room—including team names and details of the sports stars—are amazing,” says Ji. “I realized our relationship will be based in a new generation.”

Learn more about Li Li Ji and about the U.S.–China Center for Sport Culture Exchange and see photos of the grand opening. Read Nicole Lavoi's blog post in China.

Story by Gayla Marty | Spring / Summer 2012

This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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