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.
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.
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!
Andrew Hamilton BSc, MRSC, trained as a chemist and is now a consultant to the fitness industry and an experienced science writer
- OECD, September 2005
- Ernst and Young, September 2005
- The Washington Post, 28 August, 2004
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