An expat coach’s Olympic game plan
The American coach of China’s softball team fields controversies over loyalty, patriotism, and, oh yes, the sport itself.
Conjure up an image of a typical softball coach and it likely resembles Michael Bastian: a bear of a man at 6-foot-2, with Popeye forearms, a respectable paunch, and the earnest manner of a red-blooded Midwesterner.Skip to next paragraph
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The Midwestern part might be a stretch, as the former Ohio State coach actually hails from Sacramento. But it’s all the same to the Chinese women in his dugout – as long as he brings along that coveted American expertise, and leaves his allegiance to his home country at the border.
In 2005, his first year on the coaching staff of the Chinese National Softball Team, “I’d be asked questions all the time about my loyalty to USA Softball and who I was working for,” says Mr. Bastian. “ ‘Don’t think of me as a foreign coach,’ I’d tell them. ‘I’m a Chinese coach.’ I even learned how to whistle and sing the Chinese national anthem to gain their trust.”
It’s a funny image, the 250-pound Caucasian belting out “March of the Volunteers” with a team of diminutive Chinese nationals. But Bastian’s attempts to “act Chinese” ended right there.
For the most part, he played the brash American to the hilt – fighting with umpires and staring down opposing teams in decidedly un-Chinese behavior. Bastian recalls one of the first times he faced the Japanese team as a member of China’s coaching staff. Before the game, the Japanese players lined up on the foul line right in front of the Chinese dugout and started taunting his team.
“They had these chants that were meant to intimidate,” says Bastian, “that roughly translated to, ‘We’re aggressive, we’re in control, we are the leader.’ I walked out onto the field and laughed, and looked at one of the Japanese girls, like, ‘What does that mean? That doesn’t scare me.’ The Chinese leaders were embarrassed because I wasn’t ‘acting Chinese’ ... but in reality, they all loved it, because I was fighting for them.”
And that, Bastian continues, became just another part of his job: “As time went on, whenever there was a disagreement with an umpire, or an opponent was being too aggressive, it was always, ‘Michael, go fight!’ I became kind of the warrior for the team.”
Bastian is part of a major push by the Chinese to win as many gold medals as they can as this year’s Olympic host. In hopes of coming out on top, the isolated country has swallowed its nationalist pride and brought in outside talent wherever needed. Aside from Bastian, a Lithuanian coaches men’s basketball; a Serbian oversees men’s soccer; and synchronized swimming is being headed by a woman from Japan, historically China’s greatest enemy.
For the most part, the reception has been warm; like a spurned lover, it’s the country left behind that feels hurt. Synchronized-swimming coach Masayo Imura (often referred to as the “godmother” of the sport) was labeled a traitor by many Japanese colleagues and fans when she took the China job.
Bastian has a similar story.