Yao Ming: Successful Eugenics Experiment

The Olympics are always a festival of human biodiversity, with each sport having its ideal body-type.

The Chinese Olympic team flagbearer Yao Ming, the enormously tall Houston Rockets center who memorably led the Chinese in during the Opening Ceremonies next to the tiny hero boy who rescued two classmates buried in the recent earthquake, is the product of a more or less arranged marriage between the centers on the Chinese national men's and women's basketball teams. Colby Cosh points out the 2005 book Operation Yao Ming by Brook Larmer, which begins:

The faint whispers of a genetic conspiracy coursed through the corridors of Shanghai No. 6 Hospital on the evening of Sept. 12, 1980. It was shortly after 7 p.m., and a patient in the maternity ward had just endured an excruciating labor to give birth to a baby boy. An abnormally large baby boy. The doctors and nurses on duty should have anticipated something out of the ordinary. The boy's parents, after all, were retired basketball stars whose marriage the year before had made them the tallest couple in China. The mother, Fang Fengdi, an austere beauty with a pinched smile, measured 1.88 m—more than half a foot taller than the average man in Shanghai. The father, Yao Zhiyuan, was a 2.08-m giant whose body pitched forward in the kind of deferential stoop that comes from a lifetime of ducking under door frames and leaning down to listen to people of more normal dimensions. So imposing was their size that ever since childhood, the two had been known simply as Da Yao and Da Fang—Big Yao and Big Fang.

Still, the medical staff surely had never seen a newborn quite like this: the enormous legs, the broad, squarish cranium, the hands and feet so fully formed that they seemed to belong to a three-year-old. At more than 5 kg, he was nearly double the size of the average Chinese newborn. The name his parents gave him, from a Chinese character that unifies the sun and the moon, was Ming, meaning bright.

News of Yao Ming's birth was quickly relayed across town to the top leaders of the Shanghai Sports Commission. They were not surprised. These men and women had been trying to cultivate a new generation of athletes who would embody the rising power of China. The boy in the maternity ward represented, in many ways, the culmination of their plan.

The experiment had no code name, but in Shanghai basketball circles it might as well have been called Operation Yao Ming. The wheels had been set in motion more than a quarter-century earlier, when Chairman Mao Zedong exhorted his followers to funnel the nation's most genetically gifted youngsters into the emerging communist sports machine. Two generations of Yao Ming's forebears had been singled out by authorities for their hulking physiques, and his mother and father had both been drafted into the sports system. "We had been looking forward to the arrival of Yao Ming for three generations," says Wang Chongguang, a retired Shanghai coach who played with Yao's father in the 1970s and would coach Yao himself in the '90s. "That's why I thought his name should be Yao Panpan." Long-Awaited Yao....

The responsibility for arranging marriages among the most gifted retired athletes often fell to the coaches. "We had to do a lot of work as matchmakers," says Wang Yongfang, the former sports-institute leader who coached Da Fang early in her career and, after a long stint of hard labor in the countryside, was rehabilitated as the leader of the Shanghai women's team. "These girls spent far more time with the coaches and team leaders than with their own parents. Who else was there to make sure everything was O.K.?"

Before Da Fang even started to look for a husband, Shanghai officials had identified a suitable partner for her: Yao Zhiyuan. Yao, an active player who was two years her junior, was an agreeable man whose ready smile and love of a good quip contrasted sharply with Da Fang's grim demeanor. For several years the two players had eaten in the same cafeteria, lived in the same dormitory and practiced on adjoining courts, but, Da Fang says, "we didn't know each other very well." Shanghai coaches teased the two towering centers that they were made for each other. But it was up to a team leader named Liu Shiyu to make the match. He spoke with the players separately and convinced them that they could "make do" with each other—adding that they had the Communist Party's stamp of approval to do so. Given such high-level interest, how could Da Fang and Da Yao refuse?

The sports community didn't have to wait long for the first offspring of what the press was calling "the first couple of Asia." In the small apartment where Da Fang and Da Yao lived, everyone gathered to see the miracle child—long-awaited Yao.

Of course, another explanation for this matchmaking other than selective breeding might be: Who else was Yao's gigantic mother, Da Fang (Big Fang), who had been a particularly nasty Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, going to marry?