HOPING LACROSSE STICKS IN CHINA Despite snags, Americans give kids a crash course


BEIJING -- Lacrosse came to China last week.

But not without some members of the U.S. lacrosse team getting an introduction to a favorite Chinese sport: trying to separate foreigners from their cash.

Americans from the reigning world-champion squad managed to play lacrosse for the first time in China on Friday, much to the bewilderment and delight of the relatively few Chinese who witnessed the event.

They taught "long stick field hockey" -- as the sport is dubbed here -- to some grade-schoolers, who immediately warmed to tossing around small balls with the long, netted sticks used in lacrosse.

"I've never seen anyone pick up the game so fast," Baltimore's Mike Morrill said of 8-year-old Ao Ren as she nimbly scooped a ball off the ground and flicked it around. "She's now the best female player in China."

Added another team member, Randy Natoli of Long Island: "Just to see the look on those kids' faces was worth everything."

But what the team got to do here was far short of what Nolan Rogers of Baltimore -- the team's general manager and head of special projects for the Maryland Stadium Authority -- had envisioned after meeting with China's national sports commission last fall.

Dozens of young Chinese athletes were not there to soak up the experience. Nor was it videotaped for later use in teaching sessions here. No one from the Chinese sports commission showed up to accept the $1,000 worth of lacrosse equipment that the team had brought.

This contrasted starkly with the expectations aroused by He Zhenliang, vice minister of the sports commission and vice president of China's Olympic Committee, when he discussed the visit with the U.S. Lacrosse Foundation, based at Johns Hopkins University.

Rogers lined up six of the U.S. championship team's players, including three from Baltimore, Morrill and two other former Johns Hopkins players, Dave Pietramala and Larry Quinn. The six raised about $30,000 on their own to pay for the trip.

Then came the peculiar Chinese snags.

The sports commission told them they must make arrangements through the commission's own travel agency. And that agency would not issue a required formal invitation unless the team paid a very high fee of $12,000 for its travel costs in China -- including $2,000 for two days' use of a field where they would demonstrate lacrosse to Chinese students.

"I was amazed," Rogers said. "Here we are bringing to China the best players in the world to teach them the game for the first time and even bringing equipment that we would donate, and all they wanted to do was rip us off.

"I told them we didn't have the money. And even if we did, I'd be damned if I would give them one single dime."

Even last-minute efforts by the Chinese Embassy in Washington, which encouraged the trip, could not soften the sports travel agency's demands nor bring a response from the sports minister, He.

In an interview Friday, the sports travel agency's deputy manager, Wu Xuefan, acknowledged that even though the lacrosse squad was invited by the sports commission, his company tried to charge it $2,000 for use of a field.

"We're in business," he said. "We can't provide a field free of charge. The charges could have been negotiated lower."

Instead of bargaining with the agency, however, the team made an end run, using its U.S. travel agent to wangle an invitation through a general-purpose Chinese travel company. But they arrived in Beijing Wednesday uncertain whether they could find a place to play.

Enter their savior, Yang Hongjian of the Beijing International Sports Exchange Center, a city agency that usually deals with bicycle tours and other relatively low-level sports groups.

Yang, who said he has a masters' degree in exercise physiology from the State University of New York, may be one of the few Chinese here who had seen the game of lacrosse before Friday.

Yang heard of the team's troubles about a week ago from an American who recently brought several Little League baseball teams here to play in a tournament. And he quickly lined up a local sports institute to host the lacrosse team for the nominal cost of $200.

So the lacrosse exhibition -- albeit reduced to just a few hours -- finally proceeded.

First, the players used "soft lacrosse" sticks of molded plastic to introduce the game to the children of a group of workers who happened to come to the institute's indoor arena for exercise.

"It's fun but very tiring," said the school's 59-year-old gatekeeper, Wei Lan, who wasted no time in picking up a stick to toss a lacrosse ball with her 6-year-old grandson.

Ao Ren, the fourth-grader who so impressed the team with her natural ability, gave the game the ultimate Chinese compliment: "I like it better than badminton."

Then, the team moved to an indoor basketball court, where they donned helmets and shoulder pads to put on a brief show before institute officials and the coach of China's national field hockey team.

Their visit ended with Rogers presenting the institute with the equipment originally meant for the sports commission: several dozen lacrosse sticks, balls and a regulation goal.

"First I've got to learn the game myself," said the national field hockey coach, Song Bangxin. "Then I'll teach others."

The idea of bringing lacrosse to China was given impetus, Rogers said, by the way in which it has rapidly caught on in Japan as a result of three trips by Johns Hopkins players beginning in 1987.

Now there are 20,000 lacrosse players on Japanese university teams, half of them women, said Yusuke Sasaki, a Japanese banker, who got to know the sport when he attended Johns Hopkins in 1988-89 and who has become a director of the newly formed Japan Lacrosse Association.

"It's the fastest-growing sport in Japan," he said. "Lacrosse clothes are considered very fashionable even among people who don't play the game."

Compared with that, the sport's inauguration in China last week was perhaps not so promising. Nevertheless, Rogers and the lacrosse squad seemed satisfied Friday that, despite their travails, they had achieved the cross-cultural sports encounter that they had sought.

"I really wanted this to happen," Rogers said. "And I can't really say it was a folly because, I'll tell you what, when Chinese kids really start playing this game, they're going to love it."

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