Where winning is everything

The glory and the costs of China’s Olympics triumph

Written by Minxin Pei | Published:August 9, 2012 3:14 am

The performance of Chinese athletes in the Olympics since 1984,when China first participated in the Games,has been nothing short of spectacular. If we use the medal count as a yardstick,China’s haul of gold,silver,and bronze in the summer Olympics has tripled between 1984 and 2008. At the London Olympics,China has once again proved its prowess in winning medals. It is widely expected to win more medals than any country except,perhaps,the sporting superpower,Team USA.

What lies behind China’s Olympian success? The conventional answer might be population and money. With 1.3 billion people,China has a huge pool of talent to pick from. Rising income also contributes to a better-fed and physically stronger population. Athletes can afford state-of-the-art equipment and training. For example,Chinese swimmers today train in Australia,a country that has produced world-class swimmers. Indeed,China’s rise as a sporting superpower has closely paralleled its economic ascendance.

But this explanation answers only part of the puzzle. There are other large developing countries that have achieved impressive economic growth in the last three decades,such as India,Indonesia,Vietnam,Brazil,Turkey,and many others,but none of them has outshone China in the sporting arena.

Brazil,by no means a slouch in sports,saw its Olympics medal count in the summer Games double in this period. South Korea,a fiercely competitive country that has one of the world’s most successful sports programmes,increased its medals by 50 per cent between 1984 and 2008.

A more persuasive answer would point to China’s state-directed athletic programme,which has one overriding objective: winning international competitions. To be sure,China did not invent this system. It has merely followed the examples of the former Soviet Union and Cuba. This system has a proven track record of producing winners. Not surprisingly,if adjusted for per capita income and size of population,the world’s real sporting superpower should be North Korea. This country of 24 million people with a per capita GDP of less than $2,400 (PPP) typically wins as many medals as far bigger and wealthier nations like Turkey,South Africa and Iran in the summer Olympics. The reason for North Korea’s Olympic performance is simple. Its totalitarian rulers may be starving its people,but they at the same time lavish what little money they have on a state-controlled athletic programme designed to produce Olympic medalists.

Measured in size,China’s system for producing medal-winners is by far the largest and best-financed in the world. It has 15,000 government-funded sporting schools in the country. Children with athletic talent and potential are identified at an early age and sent to these boarding schools to be trained into future Olympians. Ye Shiwen,the 16-year-old swimming prodigy at the London games,was picked when she was six and has spent a decade in the Chinese athletic training programme. Chinese divers,who have dominated the sport for two decades,start their training at a similarly tender age. Total government spending on this elite sports programme is secret. A few years ago,it was revealed that Beijing spent 20 billion yuan (about $3 billion) in preparation for the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens. Since China won 63 medals in Athens,one might say that each medal cost almost $50 million.

However,besides investing a huge fortune in its elite athletes,China has also been very strategic in picking its targets. Because the physical build of Asians differs greatly from the Caucasians and Africans,China does not waste its money on track and field,where it has little hope of muscling out the Europeans and Americans. Instead,Beijing focuses on more obscure sports that require years of painstaking training,shunned by athletes in wealthier societies,such as weightlifting. The most ingenious component of China’s Olympics-winning strategy is to give more attention to its female athletes. As a result,China’s female athletes are far more successful than their male colleagues. Of all the international championships won by China in the last 30 years,roughly 60 per cent belonged to female athletes.

Of course,this top-down strategy has its limits and costs. Despite its huge budget,the Chinese programme has been much less successful in winning medals in team sports. China’s male national football team,a perennial loser,is a joke. In addition,by devoting disproportionate financial resources to a select few,China has neglected the majority of its youth. While its elite athletes train in world-class facilities,most Chinese schools have little space for sports. Based on sports facility available per person,China ranks below 100 in the world,a far cry from its current number one position in the medals tally at the London Olympics.

Another cost of this programme is that athletic triumph hides calamitous failures of public policy. While Chinese athletes break world records in international competitions,new — and worrying — records are being created at home. The Chinese are becoming much less healthy: roughly 85 per cent of its high-school students are near-sighted,diabetes has become an epidemic,over 200 million are overweight or obese,and 160 million suffer from high blood pressure. As a nation,China would be much better off had its government deployed the same level of attention and energy to improve its public health.

For the moment,however,this abnormality is almost certain to continue. Winning Olympic medals,like clocking the speed of economic growth,adds gloss to the image of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese people,who may resent their government’s heavy-handedness and neglect of more urgent social problems,support their athletes and understandably derive enormous national pride from their success in international competitions.

The writer is a professor of government and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US

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