It would be an insult to say that Chinese basketball fans treat Kobe Bryant like a god. And Kobe would be the insulted one.
At the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium, the crowd erupts into thunderous cheers when he takes the floor for warmups. They chant his name, turning it into three syllables: Ko-be-a. When he throws one down in the layup line, grown men — many wearing his NBA jersey — all but swoon as they roar their approval.
But go over to the Olympic Green and ask the average Chinese, who come to stroll the enormous plazas and take turns snapping photos of each other in front of the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube, who the best American athlete is, and Kobe’s got competition.
With an interpreter at my side, I asked 17 Chinese and two Canadian women — what the heck, it is an international event, and they were cute — who’s better, Phelps or Kobe?
It wasn’t a scientific survey, but 12 people voted for “Fei-er-pu-si,” which is how “Phelps” comes out in Mandarin, and seven for Kobe-a.
The number of people who named Phelps was a surprise. Before these Games began, few Chinese knew who he was. China had never won a swimming medal in any previous Olympics, and there wasn’t any reason to pay attention to the sport. But the NBA has been very popular here ever since national hero Yao Ming became a star center for the Houston Rockets six years ago. And Kobe Bryant has become the most popular player in China, his jersey outselling even Yao’s.
Kobe is also far more recognizable — there are very few blacks in China — and is mobbed wherever he goes in Beijing. Phelps, even with his eight medals, could probably slip unnoticed through much of the city.
But it turns out that the average Chinese Olympics fan appreciates the historic impact of what Phelps did in the pool. They might rather have dinner with Kobe, but they think Phelps is the better athlete.
“Phelps or Kobe?” I asked three young Olympics volunteers through an interpreter. “Phelps,” they agreed.
“He won more medals,” one said. Before we could ask another question or get names, one of the volunteers remembered that they’re not supposed to do interviews.
We stopped a young couple, Zhang Zong Peng and Dong Bo, and asked the same question. “Kobe, because I like the NBA,” said Zhang as his girlfriend nodded in agreement.
Yao Zhigiang, a high-school student, was touring the plaza with his mother. “Kobe, he said. “He’s really cool, and I like basketball.”
There is a gender divide on the question. Females were more likely to appreciate Phelps and males were more likely to pick Kobe. Apparently China is like the United States in that men tend to like pro team sports and women tend to prefer Olympic sports.
A young married couple who identified themselves as Bert and Gloria, embodied that divide. “Kobe,” said Bert. “I love Yao Ming very much, but I think Kobe’s the most greatest.”
“Phelps,” countered Gloria. “He won eight gold medals.”
The male-female divide isn’t hard and fast, though. Zhou Lingjie was touring the Green with a friend, who gave the name he uses in English, Edward Young. Both are university students.
She liked Kobe best. “My little brother has Kobe all over the walls of his room,” she explained.
But Young said Phelps is the best. “He’s very talented,” he said. “He makes it look easy.”
Two tall men from the Siberian border region who came to Beijing for the Games and who play basketball themselves, didn’t give their names, but both voted for Kobe, because, as one said, “He is like a god. He’s not human.”
Two couples strolled past and we tossed them our question. All four said Phelps because they like swimming.
Another pair of college students voted for Phelps. “He’s made history,” Wei Yi Duo explained.
Finally, we talked to two Canadians, Sarah Emmett of Toronto and Kim Paterson of London, a conversation I managed without my interpreter. I asked them whom they’d rather meet, Phelps or Kobe?
“Phelps,” said Emmett. “Eight gold medals — can you get better than that? And he seems humble and low key.”
“He’s unstoppable,” added Paterson.
In English and in Chinese.