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The Dark Side of China’s State-Run Sports Engine

[Editor’s Note: China put on a great show and won many medals at the London Olympics. What may not be well known to Westerners, or even to many Chinese is that a large number of Chinese athletes have experienced or are likely to experience dark endings. The tragedies we know about may just be the tip of the iceberg in the Chinese state-run sports engine. An article by Internet author Zhao Zhongkang, published by Radio France International (RFI), relates the experiences of many of China’s most successful athletes. The following is a translation of an excerpt from that article.] [1]

Sports competition at its best can reflect the openness, justice, and fairness in the human world. Everything is presented before an audience, whether one is fast or slow, high or low, strong or weak, good or bad. However there are still a few who conduct dark activities behind the scenes. If those who bear the glory of their country have sometimes been found to be responsible for some of these dark acts, there have been countless others around the country who have concealed themselves in the shadows in order to fake their accomplishments. The measures they have used are both hidden and horrifying. Let us now take a look at our country, a nation famous for counterfeiting, fabricating lies, and covering up the deceitful measures used in sports competitions and in the decisions made behind closed doors.

The London Olympics are over. Chinese athletes came home with a large number of medals. When we look back at their glorious achievements, we soon discover many stories, previously unknown and hidden from the public. We knew that the Chinese soccer team was ridden with scandal (Editor’s Note: A national anti-graft campaign that started in 2009 resulted in a total of 56 high-level soccer officials, top players, famous referees, and club officials going to prison, [2] Even the recently removed Chongqing Party Chief, Bo Xilai, was reported to have been involved in soccer scandals with referees making wrong calls and soccer teams purposely losing. [3]).

This time we found out how dark the woman’s weight lifting team could be. Zhou Jun, a 17 year old weight lifting athlete failed to lift 95 kg in all of her three trials, ending with a score of 0 kg and an elimination from the Women’s 53kg class competition. (Editor’s Note: Chinese viewed this as a great humiliation, affecting their national pride. Many media started digging into what was behind the story. It was reported that though Ji Jing, a Hubei athlete, won the national Olympics trial championship for the 53kg class competition, the National Weight-lifting Bureau let the Hubei Province Weight-lifting Bureau replace her with Zhou Jun, an inexperienced young athlete from the same province. [4]) One Chinese media published a harsh criticism of Zhou Jun, but had to (and may have been ordered to) issue an apology to Zhou Jun the next day. [5] People wondered why China would send such young athletes to compete when there are many other talented players who would have qualified.

In the end, Kazakhstan’s Zulfiya, won the gold medal in woman’s 53kg class weight lifting. Zulfiya’s real name is Zhao Changling; she was originally from Hunan Province. She won two gold medals and broke one world record in London. Another 63 kg class gold medal winner was Maiya, also from Kazakhstan. Her formal Chinese name was Yang Meili. She was from Liaoning Province and was trained by the Hunan Woman Weight Lifting Team. After she moved to Kasankhstan, she changed her name and, in public, she even refused to acknowledge her Chinese nationality. [6] (Editor’s Note: Due to too many talented athletes and internal politics, some top Chinese athletes do not get to compete at the top-level world competitions such as the Olympic Games. Therefore, some choose to emigrate to other countries so they can participate in the competition.)

Chinese athlete Wang Mingjuan won the 48kg class gold medal. Before the London Olympics, Wang had been ordered to give up the previous two Olympic opportunities in Athens and Beijing in favor of other Chinese athletes. For the past 8 years, she could only watch others win the gold medals. In order for Wang to come to the London Olympics, Liang Xiaodong, a manager of the Hunan Province Sports Bureau, went to Beijing to plead with the leaders of the State General Administration of Sports. At a dinner banquet, he was told that he had to out-drink all others to get a seat for Wang Minguan. Sadly, Liang died at the banquet from an alcohol overdose. Thus Wang was allowed to appear at the London Olympics, but it was at the cost of Liang’s life. Just six days before the Olympics Opening Ceremony, Wang Mingjuan was told that she had been assigned the mission of winning the first gold medal for China. Her uniform arrived, only three days before her departure. (Editor’s Note: Ironically, Wang Mingjuan’s attending the London Olympics made Tian Yuan a victim. Tian is China’s current best 48 class athlete. She had won all recent world-level competitions and broken the world record six times in one day. But her chance to shine at the Olympics this time was given to Wang Mingjuan. [7])

As a matter of fact, the decisions as to whether Chinese athletes can participate in the Olympic competitions or not, are not based on their skills or on their achievements. Party leaders decide whether the athlete meets the standards they establish.

It is also a common phenomenon for the Party leaders to decide who on the Chinese badminton team can win or lose. During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Ye Zhao was arranged to lose to Gong Zhichao during the semi-finals. Four years later in the Athen’s Olympics, again during the semi-finals, Zhou Mi was told to lose to Zhang Ning.

The first athlete who stood up to fight against arranged wins and losses was the Women’s Ping Pong player He Zhili. At the 39th World Ping Pong Competition held in New Deli, India in 1987, the Chinese Delegation Coaching Group decided that He Zhili would lose to Guan Jianhua during the semi-finals. She didn’t follow orders and beat Guan 3 to 0. As a result, Guan Jianhua and all the leaders of the Chinese Delegation were furious. When He was in the championship game, no one from the Chinese Ping Pong team showed up to cheer her on. Nevertheless He beat her opponent from another country and won the championship.

Even though He won the glory for China, the management team would not leave her alone. After she returned to China, she was asked to write a self criticism. This incident later made its way to China’s top leadership, who issued a directive stating, “We never criticize heroes.” Nonetheless, the following year, He’s name disappeared from the Chinese delegation to the Olympic Games. In 1989, He announced her retirement from the Chinese Ping Pong team. She married an Engineer from Japan. She changed her name to Koyama Chire, emigrated to Japan and became a Japanese citizen.

In 1992, He, now called Koyama Chire, returned to the Ping Pong competition. In 1994, during the 12th Asian Games held in Hiroshima, she beat the world’s #1, #2, and #7 players, including then world champion Deng Yaping from China, to win the gold medal. According to Japan’s Emperor Akihito, China helped Japan to develop Koyama Chire into an Asian Games champion. Since then He Zhili has been using the name Koyama Chire to represent Japan in world Ping Pong competitions.

At the London Olympics, Zhao Changling (Kazakhstan’s Zulfiya) won the medal for Kazakhstan. She will be awarded with a car, house, money and honors. If she ever chose to be a patriot and return to her hometown in Hunan, she would lose everything she ever earned. To a country that has a population of 17 million, Zhao is a hero, but to a country that has a population 1.4 billion, she can only be a loser.

Here are a few more examples that take us back to the Cultural Revolution. In 1957, after Rong Guotuan, returned from Hong Kong to the “motherland,” he won the first world Ping Pong champion for China and he won many other awards since then. Rong ended up committing suicide by hanging himself from a tree next to Longtan Lake in Beijing. Fu Qifang returned to the motherland in 1953, won the 26th World championship in Ping Pong and coached the Chinese Ping Pong team. He was criticized and denounced as a spy during Cultural Revolution and committed suicide on April 16, 1968. Jiang Yongning, a Ping Pong player from Hong Kong, coached the Chinese Ping Pong team and won many awards for China. He was condemned as a Japanese soldier and suffered severe beatings. The only evidence for the claim that he was Japanese was the cloth he wore in one of his pictures when he was little. It had a design of a small sun on it. On May 16, 1926, he hanged himself inside his jail cell.

Many of the medalists who won awards for their motherland had unhappy endings.

Liu Xiang, the Chinese 110 meter hurdler, fell again in the London Olympics. He had withdrawn from the competition four years ago in the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese people were devastated. When one TV host was conducting a live broadcast of the competition, he was almost in tears. Liu is the treasure of our country! His brand name is worth billions and billions of yuan in the advertising market! When we saw him fall to the ground, get up, and hop to the finish line, all of us were full of sympathy and admiration. We could not help but cry.

However just when all of us were buried in this emotion, news was published that Liu Xiang had faked his fall. The postings were everywhere and jammed people’s in-boxes. Many people presented evidence showing that he had manipulated the Chinese people so that he could continue to use his name to make money and glorify the authorities. The uniform number he wore at both the Beijing and London Olympic Games was “1356.” It was a clear indication that it was not a random number assigned to him. It meant that Liu Xiang had to bear the interests of 1.3 billion Chinese people from 56 ethnic groups. It was too much for Liu. We gradually learned that he had never fully recovered from his ankle injury, but he still had to sacrifice himself and compete.

Perhaps we shouldn’t blame Liu Xiang. The number “1356” was just like a mountain on his back. He could hardly breathe. When he grew from a child and became an athlete representing his country, the country paid all of his expenses. He had to follow the arrangements his country made for him, whatever it took. Then who is the country? It is the Party leaders; they are the masterminds, who exercise control behind the scenes and who would do anything to win a high medal count.

[1] RFI, August 20, 2012
[2] Global Times, “Former soccer chiefs jailed as anti-graft drive concludes,” June 14, 2012
[3] Chinascope, “Insights into Political Infighting in China: Reports about Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkong,”
[4] China News, “Tian Yuan Broke the World Record Six Times in a Day But Didn’t Make the Olympics Delegation,” July 12, 2012.
[5] Metropolitan Times, “An Apology Letter to Zhou Jun,” July 31, 2012.
[6], “The Inside Story on the Kazakhstan’s Weight-lifting Girl from China,” August, 15, 2012.
[7] China News, “Tian Yuan Broke the World Record Six Times in a Day But Didn’t Make the Olympics Delegation,” July 12, 2012.