Aug 16, 2012
Shuang Bin

What’s Wrong with China’s State-Run Sports Regime? Chinese Feel Wronged by Western Interpretation

The importance of the medals table of the 2012 London Olympics ceases as the Games came to close. The number of China’s gold medals and total medals both ranked second behind the U.S. For the Chinese, the 2012 Olympic Games were not as joyful –Western suspicions of Ye Shiwen’s dope test turned out to be invalid, the Chinese badminton scandal stirred a debate regarding Olympic Spirit, and negative reports of China’s state-run sports regime are often found in Western newspapers. On the other hand, China’s stunning sweep of a number of games’ titles brings pride to China, but concerns many countries.

There is the assumption that anything created or supported by an authoritarian government is wrong- no matter the quality of the program, it will ultimately go wrong. China’s sports industry, if it can be categorized as such, is certainly no exception to this assumption.

To diagnose the problem with China’s sports regime, most critics rush to point out the widely pervasive structure of sports schools at all levels and criticize it as a reflection of the nation’s central planning system, parallel to its economy. Even though it is effective in implementing policies from the top all the way down to the grassroots, it has wasted many resources, including the number of kids who spend their entire childhood practicing sports thanks to the taxpayers’ money poured into state run sports schools and facilities.

To some extent, the analogy between China’s methods of raw material extraction and industrial development and their investment in their athletes’ pool, sports regime and Olympic medals might be accurate. (The Chinese media have indicated that Pink Floyd’s music video might be the origin of Westerners’ impression of athletes trained under authoritarian government. Many Chinese found it as an unacceptable bias against the Chinese.) We can even push forward to say authoritarian regimes, in many respects, more or less follow this functional pattern. However, taking the individual will of China’s athletes into account might help distinguish the two processes. Kids (perhaps according to their parents’ wish) voluntarily enter into the athletes’ pool—usually sports schools which offer very limited formal education. Most parents from urban areas sincerely want their children to remain healthy and may even support their children training in a particular sport. In contrast, parents from rural areas push their children into sports because they are often attracted by more practical benefits: the potential for their kids to climb one step up on the social status ladder or to win prizes by winning games in the future. Talented kids with physical advantages are more likely to draw attention from coaches. For a family living in poverty, a decent living environment (having food to eat and a place to stay) and the chance for success are persuasive enough for parents to permit coaches to take their kids away for training. Families that are relatively wealthy focus more on formal education, which is integral to finding a good job. This phenomenon can be observed by looking at the profiles of most athletes. Those participating in the Games who suffered tremendous hardship through brutal training and have less professional association/audience are usually coming from poor families. This includes participants in long-distance races, weight lifting, and gymnastics. What drives them to achieve their current accomplishments is not purely nationalistic spirit and coaches’ coercive training approaches, but more essentially their families’ economic conditions. Their success means they could get out of their unknown village. It is an honor, but more than that it is the potential for a better livelihood.

There is a palpable rural-urban divide in Chinese sports and this has manifested itself in the Olympic Games. Poor families’ higher likelihood of choosing sports school is a consequence of the shortcomings of rural education. Everyone’s choices are based on a balanced calculation of their various interests if not taking irrational elements into account. In that sense, Chinese athletes pick the option that they believe will bring them the brightest future. The state doesn’t interfere with their choices on that level. What makes a difference is that urban kids have more options to choose from, while rural children have fewer choices and few of the options are favorable. The state’s mechanism for choosing athletes precisely fills the needs of many families who suffer from poverty, which makes the pool of athletes large and highly competitive.

Commercialized sports, emerging as a new form to organize and train athletes in China, is based more on commercial profits according to how many audience and fans they can attract. The growth of commercialized sports indicates that their might be the potential to detach athletes from the state planning system. Liu Xiang, Li Na, and Yao Ming are all top examples of this trend. While for other sports, especially those that rarely draw public attention and, therefore, are less prone to commercialization, like weight lifting and race walking, will have to continue to rely on the state planning system, at least in the short term. Currently, there is an equilibrium, a balance between the nationalistic needs for medals and rural grassroots’ aspiration of getting out of poverty, that the state is trying to manage. We have to recognize, however, the tragedy that is the significant number of local trained athletes for whom it is inevitably impossible to move up beyond even the county level due to the nature of the competition. These athletes have already devoted most of their childhood and teen years to a career that could only reward a very small number of top competitors. A large number of athletes is the foundation for winning medals, a unified phenomenon that applies to many countries. The majority of Chinese people have never recognized the large population of athletes as contributing to any single medal and even the state ceases to support them after their forced retirement from sports without providing the athletes with enough education for them to enter the work force in the first place. In their later lives, these athletes will face even harder times as they discontinued their studies long ago and can never come back to the normal track according to the design of the education system.

It should be noted that there is another attribute of the Chinese attitude towards medals that contributes to the sports regime, particularly in international competition. After almost a century of being called as “Sick Man of East Asia,” Chinese people still feel very insulted. To prove that the Chinese have become a stronger, more unified country, we want be the best in any field around the world. Using numbers to count success is undoubtedly a reflection of this nationalistic mood. Among ordinary Chinese, getting a higher GDP growth rate and building a number of buildings that break world records are not so different from winning more Olympic medals. The Chinese people have not fully restored their confidence in the greatness of their nation, though longing to consider themselves as such. We still consider ourselves as living in a developing country where everyone has to work extremely hard to earn a living, while outsiders have again looked at China through the lens of economic might. It is thus understandable that Chinese feel wronged when the successes that they have proudly achieved is interpreted by Westerners simply as indicative of entrenched problems. It is like a venerable giant walking around and showing muscles to prove its strength, but in turn scares people away. This fact partially also explains some western journalists’ mentality of digging negative news when reporting on China and why such news is welcomed in their society. The giant sees the need to strengthen its power while others already feel threatened.

To some extent, public opinion in China overwhelmingly favors more medals. The government, in responding to public opinion, has been dumping enormous resources into developing its athletic programs and found it an effective means to consolidate patriotism by stirring up a sports-related nationalistic mood. Authoritarian though it may be, authoritarianism is not the sole cause of China’s brutal sports regime. Emerging as a super power, the Chinese have to be prepared for more criticism and challenges. To really advance the country, numbers are not enough to prove its success; instead, developing institutions by building and integrating capacities of major aspects could improve the country’s real strength and competence. It might take China decades to relax, yet slowly but surely the Chinese people will become more confident in their athletic abilities, in their identity and in their country.


1 Comment

  • Great insights. It doesn’t sound too different from the United States, especially for baseball, basketball, and football. Professional sports can be a lottery ticket out of poverty for skilled athletes in the US who lack other opportunities. An entire industry has grown up around this dream, often selling unrealistic expectations. It would seem that the only big difference between the US and China here is that in the former, the private sector runs this industry, not the government. I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes to the individual athlete, however.

Leave a comment

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

Email Subscription to D&S and Blog

* indicates required

Posts by Region

Posts by Topic

Switch to our mobile site