When China returned to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984 after a 50-year absence, the Chinese national team staged a wonderful debut, grabbing 15 gold medals. Over the following five Olympic Summer Games, Chinese teams won another 97 gold medals and received their best tally, 32 gold medals, at the Athens Olympics, second only to 35 for the United States. Now, with the Olympics coming to China, the Chinese people are hoping for an equally powerful performance.
Liu Peng, Minister of the China General Administration of Sport, and President of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said recently, "China still lags far behind sports powers such as the United States and Russia."
Liu's predecessor Yuan Weimin voiced the same concern three years ago after the conclusion of the Athens Olympics. Yuan, who was head coach of the Chinese women's volleyball team when it took its third world champion title in a row at the 1984 Olympic Games, even retorted to a journalist, "Do you think these gold medals alone can make us a sports power?"
Yuan believed the strengths of a sports power should be reflected in many aspects, not only in a high level of competitiveness, but also in the fitness of the population, sports facilities, public participation in exercise and the development level of sports industries. "Sports power should be a comprehensive concept," Yuan said.
Yuan also believed that China would not become a real sports power without producing excellent swimmers, field and track athletes and water sports players. Ren Hai, a professor at Beijing Sport University, said these events are the best index for the general fitness of a country's population.
China has developed substantial advantages in several Olympic events, which have become the major gold medal sources for the country over the years. Among the 28 gold medals Chinese athletes won at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, 21 came from table tennis, diving, badminton, weightlifting and gymnastics. Meanwhile, in the three categories with most gold medals: athletics, swimming and water sports, Chinese players snatched just one out of 119 gold medals.
After the Sydney Olympics, Yuan put forward a strategy to build China's prowess in athletics, swimming and water sports. His strategy yielded remarkable results at the Athens Olympics, where Chinese athletes pocketed four gold medals, two silver medals and one bronze medal in events of the three categories. These medals included China's first Olympic track-and-field gold in a men's event for star hurdler Liu Xiang.
Even in competitive sports, China's comprehensive strengths remain far behind the United States and Russia. In 2005, U.S. athletes won a total of 41 world champion titles in 41 Olympic events, Russian athletes 34 titles and Chinese athletes 28 titles. In 2006, Chinese athletes achieved a record of 79 world champion titles, including China's first titles in boxing, pentathlon, fencing, rowing and sailing. But it was still behind 106 world champion titles for the United States and 83 for Russia. So far this year, American athletes have already harvested over 30 gold medals in athletics and swimming while Russia has shown its supremacy in artistic gymnastics, water ballet, boxing and several athletics events and exhibited its potential to win more gold medals than China at the Beijing Olympic Games next year.
The China General Administration of Sport drafted a development plan for competitive sports by 2010, whose general goal is to prepare the country to participate in competitions among first-layer countries. In 2004, Xiao Shouzhang, Vice President of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said that China would challenge the forerunners at the Beijing Olympic Games.
Bao Mingxiao, a senior research fellow with the China Institute of Sport Science, said, "Although China for the first time became a first-layer country at the 2004 Olympics, the following two Summer Games in 2008 and 2012 will be the key stages to test and enhance China's strengths."
"Government's long-term funding for professional sports teams has greatly contributed to the country's outstanding performances at international competitions," said Xiao Tian, Vice Minister of the China General Administration of Sport.
The Chinese Government started to fund professional sports teams in the 1950s. Under this system, Chinese athletes have reaped almost 2,000 world champion titles.
Ren said, "A country's performance at international sporting competitions is somehow an index of the country's national strength, vitality and capacity for sustainable development, which is decided by the country's comprehensive strength." He said countries with poor comprehensive strength could at best exhibit outstanding edges in a small number of events for a short period of time but couldn't maintain competitiveness in a wide range of events.
China's government-sponsored sports system is totally funded by the government and features a three-layer training system of professional athletes where coaches find talented children from kindergarten and primary schools and train them part time in amateur sports schools; children practice and compete in these amateur schools and star students are given the opportunity to be trained in local professional teams; and outstanding athletes from local teams are promoted to the national team of that sport.
Over the process, the government pays all the expenses for the athletes' professional training, traveling expenses and entrance fees for international competitions. Athletes and their families do not need to make any risky investment and the system has excelled in producing talented athletes over a short period with limited government investment. A direct result of the system has been China's quick rise in the Olympic medal rankings over the last two decades. The system has also helped China to maintain a long-term edge in certain sports, demonstrated by the five Olympic gold medals in a row in women's three-meter springboard diving.
"Mum used to be a star as big as Michael Jordan in China," Lang Ping told her daughter, who was born and raised in the United States. As arguably the most revered volleyball player in the world in the 1980s, Lang, together with her teammates, swept five major world titles in succession in the 1980s, including one Olympic gold medal. Yet Lang's 15-year-old daughter has to grow older to understand that her mother made almost no money out of her fame during the prime of her sporting career. The biggest monetary reward Lang ever got was 10,000 yuan.
In 1996, the government sport administrative authorities formulated an advertisement regulation for professional athletes. Article One of this regulation starts by saying: "The invisible assets of professional athletes all belong to the country," which is understandable since the state has paid the expenses for nurturing their talent. But this regulation has not been well implemented in practice.
In 2001, the Chinese men's soccer team for the first time qualified for the final round of the World Cup. Major players in the team signed several advertisement contracts without ratification from the national team and China General Administration of Sport. Some years ago, the Chinese national table tennis team even tried a commercial agent system out on its players, which allowed them to seek agents and companies to sponsor them. The trial turned out a failure because, except for a handful top ranking players, most players could not find enough money to support their living and training, let alone their air fares to compete abroad.
"The Atlanta Olympics in 1996 unleashed a new chapter for the commercialization of professional sports in China," said Fang Xuefeng, a senior sports journalist on Beijing Television. Before the Atlanta Games, the prizes for Olympic champions came mainly from the government and overseas foundations. Yet since the Atlantic Olympics, a growing number of star Olympic athletes have started to reap handsome profits from participating in commercial activities, including shooting advertisements.
Over the last decade, reform of the government-sponsored system has continued. Professional sports development has become more inclusive, encouraging the participation of other forces from society. There are more and more professional teams sponsored by businesses, institutions of higher learning, commercial clubs and even individuals. The state remains the major sponsor while active participation by various forces from society has relieved the government's financial burden.
A survey in 2000 found that the number of active sport participants, defined as those who take part in at least three sessions of more than half-an-hour of exercise every week, account for about one third of China's total population.
"We will strive to raise this proportion to 40 percent by 2010," said Ji Chuan, an official in charge of mass sports in the China General Administration of Sport.
One of China's national sports meetings, slated for the second half of 2010, will host mainly non-Olympic sports designed for exercise rather than competition.
According to Wu Shaozu, former head of China's sport administrative authorities, government money spent on encouraging mass sports will help the country's Olympic medal prospects.
Many experts complain that the social basis for many competitive sports remains poor. Many people have questioned the logic of nurturing a team of talented players against encouraging mass participation in sports, which would give every sport a larger pool of talent.
The China General Administration of Sport and other government departments are investing more in the organization of mass sports. China's economic boom has promoted a rise in living standards. Compared with the past, the Chinese people worry less about food, clothing or housing and more about their health and fitness. Taking part in sports has become part of life for an increasing number of people. "China's dream of becoming a genuine sports power relies on these people," said Wu.