Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Inside China's Sports Machine

August 3, 2008

By Pallavi Aiyar
Asia Times
August 2, 2008

BEIJING - When China hosts the Summer Olympic Games this month it
will be going for gold. Not only does the country see the event as a
golden opportunity to showcase the achievements of its monumental
modernization drive, but also as a chance to emerge as the Olympics'
top gold medal winner.

The fact that it stands a more than sporting chance of achieving its
goal is all the more astonishing, given that China made its Olympics
debut only in 1984 in Los Angeles. Prior to this the International
Olympic Committee's recognition of teams from Taiwan as the official
representatives of China had kept Beijing away.

But despite its long isolation from the event, by the 1996 Atlanta
Games China had already made it to fourth place in the medals tally
with 16 golds. In Sydney, four years later, China finished third with
28 golds. In Athens, where India, the only other country with a
comparable population, finished with just a single silver medal,
China's 32 gold medals saw it second only to the United States. The
logic of its ascent to the number one spot in Beijing appears inexorable.

The sporting achievement of a country that was for decades
dismissively referred to by countries in the West as the "sick man of
Asia" is the result of a complex of factors including nationalism,
strong state support and funding and a clearcut medals-focused
Olympics strategy.

"For China, doing well in the Olympic Games is an opportunity to
establish international prestige and earn 'face' on the world stage.
Since sporting achievement is indicative of the level of a nation's
development, we feel we could change the world's impression regarding
China by performing well at the Olympics," said Xie Qionghuan, former
deputy secretary general of the Chinese Olympic Committee.

Xie, currently a professor of sports sociology at the Beijing Sports
University, was only echoing a belief that was articulated by the
People's Republic's founding father, Mao Zedong. "If our bodies are
not strong, how can we attain our goals and make ourselves
respected?" Mao asked in an article published in 1917.

The spirit of avenging nationalist pride that has ever since
underlain China's sporting efforts has been backed up by hard cash
and other forms of state support. China does not make public what it
spends on sports programs, but it is estimated to be several hundred
million US dollars annually.

Xie added that a clever Olympics strategy has targeted sports
"suitable to the physiques and talents of East Asian peoples". He
gave the examples of events such as table tennis, badminton and
gymnastics, in which China has come to excel. These are sports that
require quick reflexes and flexibility rather than raw physical
strength and stamina.

Some critics have claimed that China's success at the Olympics is
somewhat undermined by the fact of its having targeted "soft sports",
underdeveloped in other countries, like shooting and taekwondo as
well as women's sports in general. About 63% of China's medals in
Athens were won by women - excluding mixed sports - compared with
about 40% for the US and Russia

China's relentless drive for Olympic glory means that even this is
changing. In Athens, Liu Xiang became China's first men's Olympic
gold medallist in track and field, the glamour sport of the Games.
And while a decade ago the Chinese were serious contenders in only a
handful of sports like table tennis and diving, in Athens they
competed in every sport except for baseball and equestrian events. In
2008, China will compete in all 28 Olympic sports.

China's sports system is adapted from that of the former Soviet
Union. It relies on an extensive network of scouts and coaches who
ferret out the best sporting talent from the country's vast pool of
youngsters studying in primary schools. Potential future champions
are given detailed physical exams to test whether their bone
structure and bodies are likely to develop in a way appropriate for a
certain sport: height is key for volleyball, strength for
weightlifting, agility for gymnastics.

Those chosen are then funneled into a pyramid-like sports training structure.

At the top of the pyramid are some 300 elite sports training schools
nationwide where 46,000 youngsters aged six to 18 undergo intensive
daily training. Below this tier of top schools are another 3,000-odd,
level-2 specialist sports schools with about 400,000 children in
training. Finally at the base, 6 million youth hone their skills at
11,400 regular schools that also happen to specialize in one or
another sporting category.

Shishahai Sports School is one of the Chinese capital's most
successful top-tier training institutions. Adjoining a popular bar
and entertainment complex in central Beijing, the school churns out
Olympic gold medallists with regularity and is a window onto China's
sporting system as a whole. In Athens, students from Shishahai alone
won five gold medals, three in individual and two in team sports.

Specializing in six Olympic sports - table tennis, badminton,
gymnastics, volleyball, boxing and taekwondo - the school has an
annual budget of about $30 million. Two-thirds of this comes from the

A visit to the cavernous gymnastics training hall revealed row after
row of toddlers, some as young as five. Looking cute in leotards,
many had missing baby teeth. They lined up obediently, their
expressions neither sad nor happy, for hours of bone-aching
exercises. Others hung from rings or cart-wheeled perfectly across long mats.

The coaches were stern. There seemed to be few allowances made for
their age or the fact that at five and six they had virtually no say
in the decision to enter training. No Buddhia-like controversy is
known to have erupted in China. (Buddhia was a little boy who ran a
60 kilometer race in 2006, but was later prevented from training by
child welfare authorities in India who deemed him too young to train so hard.)

"Sacrifices are necessary to be a champion," said Liu Hong Bin, the
school's director, by way of explanation for the harsh regime.

However, the emphasis on sacrifice for the glory of the country to
the detriment of the personal fulfillment and on occasion even health
of individual athletes is perhaps the most trenchant criticism of
China's sports machine.

For many athletes, playing through injuries is standard practice. The
celebrated diver Hu Jia for example will be participating in the
Olympics despite damage to both retinas of his eyes. Champions also
face tremendous pressure from the state not to retire even if they
feel burnt out.

Sports historian Zhao Yu holds that the government-led nature of
sports in China leads to an over-emphasis on medals and winning,
while developing grassroots love of sports remains neglected. "We are
not a real sporting country because we lack a popular base. Most
Chinese kids in normal schools are purely focussed on academics and
sports are rarely seen as beneficial or important. Our success in the
Olympics is artificially engineered from the top," he said.

Xie believed that the focus on gold medals was appropriate to a
particular historical juncture in China to prove to the world what
the country is capable of. He concurred with Zhao, however, arguing
that "now we [the Chinese] should reconsider our sports value system
and also focus on the enjoyment of sports and the spirit of sports
rather than merely winning".

But despite his call for a revaluation of China's sporting
priorities, Xie concluded with a reiteration of the fact that those
countries that fared well in the Olympics tended to be "big
countries, strong countries and rich countries". Doing well in the
Olympics was thus an indication of the overall development of a
country, he said, adding that the opportunity to host the Games had
made "the whole country excited and helped China gain in confidence".

Clearly, the Olympics are about far more than sporting success for
China. They have been used by the authorities to rally the nation
together and to legitimize Beijing's authority. They have also been
used as a platform to push through major changes to Beijing's
material and metaphysical topography. As a result, the city has a
brand new look and reputation.

However, while the Games are undoubtedly about more than sports
alone, when it comes to the actual sporting competitions, China is
unlikely to disappoint. The United States should look to its laurels.

Pallavi Aiyar is the China correspondent for the Hindu and author of
Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China (Harper Collins India, May
2008). For a review of the book, see Middle Kingdom deciphered.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank