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Planning a Great Leap Forward in Olympic Gold

John Li comments on China’s national strategy of going after and p;romoting Olympic gold medals.

As the Olympic flame in Athens flickered out, curiosity about the 2008 Games in Beijing was only rekindled. Winning 32 gold medals, compared with the Americans’ 35, China has eased itself into the top echelon of the world’s sporting powers, and it is likely that Athens was only the breeding ground for even more gold in Beijing.

Some might attribute China’s Olympics success to its growing economic might, stemming from the government’s sweeping economic liberalization since the 1980s. Those glimmering Olympic medals, however, are more a product of Soviet-era central planning than Deng Xiaoping-style laissez faire.

According to China’s top official in charge of sporting activities, the country is expected to invest more than $7 billion in the next several years to further improve its Olympic performance, most of it going to the 20,000 or so “Olympic medal hopefuls,” who are carefully gleaned from different tiers of government-sponsored training schools.

Modern Olympics have always been about national prestige. When the jingoist sentiment goes to the extreme, the Games can sink to being a crude show of supremacy, or even an orgy of hatred, as happened in Berlin in 1936. The Olympics have also been transformed by younger countries into a stage to herald their bright futures, and by authoritarian regimes into a showcase for their leaders’ legitimacy—or for that matter, for the embarrassing failures of their ideological opponents. Some of the cold war’s hotter battles were fought at the Olympics Games: in the Olympic pool where Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams fought in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Budapest in 1956, or at the Lake Placid ice rink where American and Soviet hockey teams battled in 1980, not to mention the reciprocal boycotts of the Moscow and Los Angeles Games in 1980 and 1984.

By one Orwellian theory, authoritarian regimes, with their iron discipline, have a natural advantage in the Games. The 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the last of the cold war era, are instructive. The top five finishers were the Soviet Union, with 55 gold medals; East Germany with 37; the United States with 36; South Korea with 13, and West Germany with 12. The next three were Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania—all members of the Soviet bloc. China was eleventh.

To a large extent, China’s current success is attributable to the fact that it is the only significant survivor among the Communist countries that traditionally used the state planning system to produce Olympic medals.

Those obsessed with nationalist fervor might ask: Why, since the 1990s, have the combined forces of West and East Germany fallen into decline, as the unified Germany, in the medals table? And most of the old Soviet-bloc countries seem to have lost momentum in their drive for medals, though Russia did come in third in the gold count, and second in the overall medal tally.
China’s Olympic strategy is not without its dissenters, the most vocal probably being Wu Shaozu, the former president of the Chinese Olympic Committee. After Wu was forced to step down for his rumored sympathy with the banned Falun Gong (which, ironically, had its rise as a mass fitness movement), he visited his impoverished hometown in Hunan Province, and to his surprise found that his modest physical stature of 1.7 meters made him one of the tallest people in the area. This led him to maintain that China’s Olympic medals had cost its young generation a gain in height. Average male height in Japan, he pointed out, had grown by 12 centimeters over the last decades, compared with 3 centimeters for China, despite China’s superior performance in the Olympic tables.

Indeed, on the surface China’s Olympic strategy seems so successful that it is being replicated in many other areas of Chinese life. Look at the booming economy. The government is striving to turn the coastal areas into the shining medals that allure foreign investments, while the vast hinterlands have been left to their own devices. (Is it just coincidence that the Chinese Olympic stars Liu Xiang and Yao Ming come from Shanghai, the boomtown that has received the lion’s share of investment from the central government?)

But the government should be careful. If the price China has to pay for its successful Olympic strategy is shorter youngsters, an economic Olympic leap forward is likely to cost livelihoods, spread discontent and, alas, eventually lead to a decline of Olympic medals that would accompany a more responsible government.

The article was originally published in International Herald Tribune on September 16, 2004


John Li is a New York based freelance writer on Sino-U.S. relations. His articles have been published in newspapers such as the Asian Wall Street Journal and the International Herald Tribune.