Chinese Sport : The Rise and Rise of Chinese Athletes

Chinese Sport : The future's not orange - it's Chinese

We revisit this article from our archive to see if our predictions about Chinese athletes in sport will prove true at the 2008 Beijing Olympics...

All experts agree that we’re about to witness a seismic change in the political and economic landscape of our globe. Like a slumbering giant roused from sleep, China is finally awakening. One recent report (1) says China will be the world’s number one exporter within five years while another (2) predicts this once rural economy will overtake the America in consumption of luxury goods by 2015. There’s little doubt that by 2025, there’ll only be one superpower in the world, and it’s not going to be the USA! But these changes will reach much further than economics. Our political and cultural perspectives are going to have to change, and when it comes to sport, the combination of demographics, desire and application will almost certainly mean that China will come to dominate many of the sporting events the West once considered its own, writes Andrew Hamilton.

To understand the inevitability of the rise and rise of Chinese sport, you first have to understand a bit about China itself. China is a vast country, covering 9.6 million square kilometres – the third largest country in the world after Russia and Canada. However, unlike these two countries, much of the Chinese landmass consists of fertile soil and grasslands, which are able to support farming and a relatively dense population. This helps to explain the most striking statistic of all: China is the world’s most populous nation with 1.3 billion citizens. But this figure only hints at the sporting potential about to emerge from China. All of the huge economic growth and rise in sporting prowess we’ve witnessed so far comes from a small proportion of this total population – the 250 million or so relatively prosperous Chinese citizens who live in industrialised cities and towns in the east of the country.

However, the economic modernisation, restructuring and reforms currently being carried out by the government will see the trend towards industrialisation and urbanisation continue and accelerate. China’s goal is to ensure that by 2050 the vast majority of its population can enjoy the same higher standards of living.This means that over the coming years we’re going to witness an extra one billion Chinese citizens becoming actively involved in the ‘modern’ China – the China that’s already beginning to dominate the global sporting arena. For every one young talented Chinese athlete currently going through Chinese sports academies and specialist training centres, there could be as many as five in the coming decades!

Just looking at numbers alone, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, India is also a very populous nation, but has yet to make its mark in the global sporting arena. So what other factors are contributing to the growing success of Chinese sport? Political will is certainly a major factor, and unlike many Western democracies where ‘individual choice’ is promoted as the holy grail of society, the more centralised system of government in China makes it much easier for this political will to be translated into reality.

Breaking the mould in Chinese sport

China’s sporting profile is changing. Gone are the days when its medal successes were confined to relatively obscure and unglamorous events such as weightlifting, badminton and diving. China is exerting a growing presence on the track, the field, in the pool and in other sports such as basketball and football.

A look at China’s medal haul at the Athens games confirms this (table 1, below). On the track, China won the women’s 10,000m courtesy of Xing Huina, while Liu Xiang won gold in the men’s 110m hurdles – the first Chinese man to capture gold on the track and the first Chinese athlete of either gender to win a medal in the sprints. Golds were also won in other ‘non-traditional’ areas such as tennis (women’s doubles), canoeing (men’s 500m), swimming (women’s 100m breaststroke), judo (women’s 52kg category), wrestling (women’s 72kg category) and volleyball (women’s team). Even more remarkable is the average age of these Chinese Olympians – just 23 years – and the fact that more than 80% of the Chinese team were first-timers, both of which bode well for China when it hosts the 2008 games. In fact, the Chinese selection process puts a premium on youth; if two athletes vying for a place at Athens were close in ability, the younger one was automatically chosen, even if this meant leaving behind a defending Olympic champion!

There’s also more evidence of China’s growing influence in a wider range of sports generally. China’s women’s volleyball team won the World Cup in November 2003, beating Japan 3-0 in the finals to finish the tournament with a perfect record, while the figure skating pair Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo won their second consecutive pairs crown at the World Figure Skating Championships in March of the same year in Washington DC. Meanwhile, Yao Ming, a superstar in his second season for the Houston Rockets in the US National Basketball Association, helped China win the 22nd Asian men’s basketball championship held in October 2003 in Harbin. Another significant breakthrough in the international sports arena for China came last year when Zhang Lianwei became the first Chinese golfer to play in the Masters in Augusta, Georgia in the United States. Zhang was issued a Masters special invitation after becoming the first Chinese golfer to win a European PGA Tour event.


Table 1: Athens 2004 medal table
USA 35 39 29
China 32 17 14
Russia 27 27 38
Australia 17 16 16
Japan 16 9 12
Germany 14 16 18
France 11 9 13
S.Korea 9 12 9

For example, in August 1995, a ‘Physical Culture Law’ was enacted, which enshrined in legal form a series of rules and regulations requiring citizens to enhance their health and physique through sports. With the emphasis on young people and children, this programme proposes that everyone engage in at least one sports activity daily, master at least two body-building methods and have a health examination every year. It also requires that physical culture departments at all levels help individuals to create health-building activities that fit in with their work and school commitments. For Chinese children and young adults in particular, pursuing sports, health and fitness is the norm, not the exception. Although such a prescriptive form of legislation would be difficult to enact in a Western democracy, there can’t be many sports administrators here who aren’t secretly envious of such a bold policy – one that is clearly going to bring enormous benefits to Chinese sport as a whole.

The National Physical Fitness Programme has set a number of targets to be reached by the end of this year including having 37% of China’s total population (that’s 481 million citizens) participating in physical exercises regularly, and to have 350,000 popular sports instructors across China. But as any sports administrator will tell you, while a sports policy can look good on paper, without adequate resources it’s doomed to failure. The Chinese government obviously understands this and has also been pouring resources into its sports development programme.

By the end of 2000, there were 30 national mass sports associations and over 40,000 grassroots workers’ sports associations, in addition to 3,854 urban community organisations, more than 2,000 community sports instruction stations and over 100,000 part-time sports instructors. Since the 1990s, large numbers of sports centres have been constructed or reconstructed. In the period 20002002 alone, 1,077 public health building projects were constructed. There are now an incredible 620,000-plus sports stadia and gymnasia in the China, which, if laid side by side, would cover a total area of nearly 1,000 square kilometres!

Given the political will for sporting success, growing wealth with which to fund its sporting goals and increasingly sophisticated sporting infrastructure, it’s clear that Chinese sport is going to be a dominant force on the world stage in the near and long-term future. But what will be the main driving force behind this success? Is it simply the vast gene pool provided by its 1.3 billion citizens and its increasing wealth, or is there more to it than that?

Look at the statistics and you’ll see that Olympic medal hauls are indeed a function of population size and national wealth. This goes a long way to explaining American dominance to date: an $11 trillion economy and a relatively large gene pool from which to draw and train would-be champions confers quite an advantage. According to Professor Andrew Benard at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, USA, the total value of goods and services that a nation produces is probably the single best predictor of a country’s Olympic success and explains about 60% of the variation in medal totals (3).

The growing Chinese medal haul in recent games neatly mirrors China’s growing economy. With the Chinese economy poised to explode, a billion or more Chinese citizens can look forward to better health, and greater access to sporting facilities and training structures. And with government resources to fund a nationwide network of sports schools, the growing practice of government-funded cash bonuses worth up to $24,000 for a gold medal (a fortune for the average citizen!) and the increasing involvement of big business sponsorship, it’s surely just a matter of time before China will sit at the top of the medal table in future games.

Then of course there’s the ‘Beijing 2008’ factor. All host countries tend to ratchet up their sports investment before an Olympic games, but the Chinese have really pushed the boat out (see panel below). This is partly because of the booming Chinese economy and also because of the immense sense of pride that China feels. After decades of being ‘out in the cold’, China is becoming increasingly integrated into the global community and is absolutely determined to ensure the 2008 games showcases the best that China has to offer.

The Beijing Olympic boost

In the run-up to the Athens Olympics, a joke was doing the rounds. A member of the 2008 Chinese Olympic committee and a member of the 2004 Greek Olympic committee are downing ouzos late one night at a taverna, and the Greek says to the Chinese, ‘When do you think your country will be finished getting ready for your Olympics?’ The Chinese official answers, ‘Sometime in 2006’. The Greek official says, ‘Us, too’. As we know, this yarn turned out to be a cheap shot at the Greeks, who in the end put on a magnificent show. However, it does ring true for the Chinese.

China is in the grip of Olympic fever, with billions of dollars rolling in from all directions to fund the 2008 games. In fact, so far ahead of schedule are they that the International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has advised China to ‘slow down’ lest it allows the games to become too grand! But China is pressing on with its bid to stage the most memorable Olympics ever, with huge construction projects already nearing completion, a plan to enlist 100,000 volunteers and there is even talk of carrying the Olympic torch over Mount Everest en route to the opening ceremony.

However, it’s not just investment in infrastructure and ceremonies that’s taking place. Soon after being awarded the Beijing games back in July 2001, China put into place its ‘Strategy Gold’ plans, pouring millions of dollars into training centres and coaching in order to develop world class athletes outside its traditional strengths. In Athens we witnessed the early fruits of that plan (see table 2, below). Come 2008 in Beijing, we’re certain to see China take another leap forward.


Table 2: China’s best sports in recent Olympic games (by medal counts)
SPORT 1996 2000 2004
Shooting 5 8 9
Weightlifting 4 7 8
Diving 5 10 8
Table tennis 8 8 6
Badminton 4 8 5
Judo 2 4 5
Gymnastics 6 8 3

But is there anything special about the Chinese gene pool? Are Chinese athletes particularly well endowed, genetically, to perform well at sport, or is it purely down to the sheer numbers of potential athletes and political willpower of the government? Although there clearly are physiological differences caused by genetics between different races, correlating these with differing athletic ability is impossible to test in an ‘experiment’ because you can’t really control the environmental differences that exist between study groups.

So yes, it’s true that there are more Africans or descendants of Africans standing on the podium at the end of Olympic track events than Asians, but because of the environmental differences, this doesn’t automatically mean that Africans have better genes for running than Asians. For example, it’s hardly surprising that Ethiopian or Kenyan distance runners do better than everyone else – they are, after all, in the habit of running immense distances to and from school!

There’s also evidence against the gene pool theory emerging from China itself. Although it’s true that, in the past the Chinese have only really excelled in a few areas of sport such as weightlifting, badminton, table tennis and diving, in the 1990s the Chinese sporting authorities decided to break the stereotype and produce record- breaking distance runners and swimmers. A glance at recent medal tables shows they’ve succeeded in spades, but the important point is that this success has come from improved training, coaching and nutrition, not from genetic manipulation!

If there is such a thing as raw, natural talent, a better indicator is to look at the number of medals won per dollar of gross domestic product – a measure that helps show how well a nation is doing compared with its resources. If you do this, the results are rather surprising. With a $734 million economy, Eritrea’s bronze medal in the men’s 10,000m race at Athens translates into 136 medals for each $100 billion of gross domestic product. Georgia’s medal tally – two golds and two silvers – translates into 101.6 medals per $100 billion of GDP. Ethiopia is close behind, with a medals-to-GDP ratio of 90, while Mongolia is running fourth with 84, and Azerbaijan fifth with 70. The United States, by contrast, is near the bottom of the table, with only about 0.83 medals per $100 billion of GDP. China’s ratio is around 4, in the middle of the pack. China’s growing sporting prowess will be earned, it seems, with hard currency and hard training!

So what will the coming decades bring for Chinese sport? The combination of population size, political will and rising prosperity makes it inevitable that we’ll witness a growing dominance across an ever-wider range of sports, as China begins to take on the mantle of the world’s number one sporting nation. How wide-ranging and long- lasting this dominance will be is hard to assess. Growing prosperity and western-influenced lifestyles will almost certainly bring increased individual choice and affluence; tomorrow’s Chinese youngsters are likely to be more sedentary and less regimented by central government policies than those of today – both of which factors could work against Chinese sport in the longer term.

But with so much untapped potential in reserve, the sight of the red flag flying over the winner’s podium is set to become a very common sight indeed!

China comes clean

Back in the 1990s, the Chinese authorities struggled to overcome a general perception that drugs were partly responsible for their medal successes. Although Ma Junren’s brilliant group of young female runners rewrote the world record books, things turned sour when some of the athletes tested positive for the banned blood-boosting drug erythropoietin before the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The country’s reputation was further damaged when China’s swimming team was devastated by a series of doping scandals.

However, with China showcasing the 2008 games, the Chinese authorities have been mounting a concerted effort to clean up Chinese sport, and judging by the evidence of recent years, it seems they’re winning. According to the Chinese Olympic Committee anti-doping office, China carried out 4,003 drug tests on its athletes in 2004 and punished 17 athletes for using performance- enhancing drugs, imposing penalties that ranged from fines to competition bans of up to two years. The list of athletes punished included five bodybuilders, four weightlifters, three from track and field, two from soccer and one each from wrestling, shooting and cycling, with no prominent names among them. Meanwhile, in Athens last year, despite a record number of doping tests (3,000) and positive cases (22), China was not among the countries with tainted athletes. According to Li Furong, a Chinese Olympic official, ‘It’s very important for us [to eliminate drugs in sport] as we need to project a clean image before the Olympic Games come to Beijing in 2008. We have demanded from all our coaches that the athletes be clean’.


Chinese swimmers prepare for 2008

In January of this year, 139 young Chinese athletes attended the Australian Youth Olympics, but many of them had their eyes fixed firmly on the future and 2008. Sporting commentators were unanimous in their verdict – the young Chinese squad is loaded with talent and looks set to make its mark in the near future. In particular, there’s been a big push to restore Chinese supremacy in the pool after the doping scandals of the 1990s and the poor performances in 2000. China’s national swimming coach Bingyan Han has stated, ‘The Chinese Swimming Association is now very serious about success and about making our swimmers and coaches practise and train very, very hard.’

Meanwhile, the Australian national head swim coach Alan Thompson believes that China will replace the USA as the team to beat in the pool by 2008. Australian swimming coaches have been giving lectures to the Chinese Swimming Association, which has also introduced Australian training and management systems as part of its strategy to regain its winning ways. However, other commentators are more sceptical, pointing out that while China will undoubtedly produce some excellent swimmers for 2008, and will also benefit from the ‘home pool’ advantage, the Chinese squad will still lack the depth required to mount a serious challenge to US supremacy in the pool.

Andrew Hamilton BSc, MRSC, trained as a chemist and is now a consultant to the fitness industry and an experienced science writer


  1. OECD, September 2005
  2. Ernst and Young, September 2005
  3. The Washington Post, 28 August, 2004


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