Chinese think American `olive ball' is super. Even though many admit they didn't really understand

China has basketball and volleyball, soccer and golf. On Sunday, it had its first thorough indoctrination in the century-old sport of American football with the airing of last January's Super Bowl between the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots.

But what many Chinese sports fans saw in watching a telescoped version of the game was not so much sports as a slice of American life.

``I'm not really watching it for the game. I don't understand the game,'' said a law student at Peking University. ``I'm watching it for the crowd shots. It seems that the American people are so energetic.''

Another student who was watching intently admitted he didn't understand the game, though that did not seem to affect his concentration, at least for a while. ``I really like this. It's a terrific sport which we don't have in China,'' he said. He too admired the exuberance of US fans.

China Central Television (CCTV) said the audience for the late afternoon sports special exceeded 300 million, 2 times the 120 million viewers of the original broadcast in the United States on Jan. 26. Even the most Western-oriented students, however, were not able to sustain their interest uninterrupted from beginning to end.

The program opened with greetings from the US ambassador to China, Winston Lord, who also read a letter from President Reagan. The President told the Chinese that the game was ``extremely popular'' in the US and that it ``developed teamwork and friendly competition.''

CCTV officials said this was the first time a foreign ambassador had addressed the Chinese public on TV.

In a large department store on Peking's main shopping street of Wanfuxing, several dozen customers watching on a color set were curious but nonplused. Two young men said they had seen the game before, referring to excerpts from National Football League matches occasionally shown on Chinese television since last year. But they seemed to know little about the game.

``It's called `olive ball,' '' said one of the youths confidently, giving the Chinese name for the sport.

``Do you know why it's called `olive ball?' '' asked the TV announcer during the first quarter. ``It's because the football looks like an olive.''

Explaining the game was the principal concern of the carefully prepared Chinese script, which was not a translation of the English play-by-play commentary, but a beginner's introduction to the fundamentals of the sport.

``We had to develop a new vocabulary for the Chinese narration,'' said Lyric Hughes of TLI International Corp., the Chicago-based advertising company that brought the game to China. Many of the terms were taken from soccer, she said, but new ones had to be invented as well.

Compared with the expert banter of the English-language announcers which could be heard simultaneously, the Chinese narration seemed dry and clinical. Sometimes diagrams appeared on the screen to illustrate important plays.

``The object is to pull down as many of the opposite team's men as possible,'' the Chinese announcer said early on. When one incomplete pass bounced into the end zone, the announcer lamented, ``Oh, that's too bad.''

The Bears' William Perry, known to American fans as ``the Refrigerator,'' was given a special introduction.

``He's called Dian Bingxiang [Electric Refrigerator], because he eats a refrigeratorful of food every day,'' the Chinese audience was told.

Viewers learned that Mr. Perry's weight was 136 kilograms, or 300 pounds -- more than twice that of the average Chinese male.

At a postgame banquet for Americans involved in bringing the game to China, the talk was about the size of the Refrigerator and whether he was coming to China, said Ms. Hughes. CCTV officials were very pleased with the program, she said, and said they wanted to show more American football on Chinese TV.

Surprisingly, there seemed to be few comments about the violence of the sport, though several Chinese said it was unlikely to catch on. The kind of rugged physiques it requires are rare in China.

The full game was edited down to 1 hours and omitted the half-time show. Musical entertainment and serious sports don't mix, according Chinese television officials. ``They said it would interfere with viewers' concentration on the game,'' Hughes said.

The commercial sponsors included four US corporations and the state of Illinois. Each paid between $10,000 and $25,000 for commercial time at the beginning and end of the show. Corporate sponsors were Gould, Nike (which manufactures some shoes here), Hewlett-Packard, and McDonnell Douglas China.

One American student said that the part of the program her Chinese friends liked best was at the very end, when the victorious Chicago team was shown dancing the ``Super Bowl Shuffle.''

``All my Chinese friends jumped up to dance with them,'' she said. Disco dancing is still a mildly counterrevolutionary act in China. Apparently these viewers thought it was an appropriate way to end the game.

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