By David Bandurski — China’s medals tally as we are now halfway through the Olympic Games in Beijing is an impressive achievement for any country, not to mention a country that did not even compete in the Games until 1984. As can be expected, there have been notes of protest about the means by which China has accomplished this — through the mysterious “Project 119” (119计划), for example, a kind of centralized planning model for sports, with its sights on Olympic gold and no concern for the overall health of athletics in Chinese society, etc.
These criticisms are not entirely baseless, of course. China’s victories are not a reflection of the overall health of its athletics system so much as its resolve to win gold. But when this point is made by U.S. media in particular it inevitably comes off as a bit proud and self-congratulatory. Yes, you’ve won all these golds — but we have achieved our victories through a fair and open system not funded with taxpayer money.
For some, this has implicitly become an Olympics of dictatorship versus democracy, the flip side of what Chinese media have called the “Olympic Cold War.”
But this year’s Olympics are much more than an empty, superficial show of China’s national strength. They come, as we have emphasized before, on the thirtieth anniversary of reforms in China. And for all of its problems, China has made remarkable progress as a society over the last three decades.
As we have said repeatedly here at the China Media Project, one sign of China’s growing openness is the growing diversity of opinion you can find in its media, the ugly realities of censorship notwithstanding.
We were pleased, then, but not entirely surprised, to find a thoughtful editorial in’s expanding opinion section begging tougher questions about what China’s Olympic medals haul actually means.
For those who think the cries of “Go China!” ringing from the stands in Beijing signal only a shallow, unreflective nationalism, this editorial is a reminder that Chinese can support the home team and still maintain a sense of perspective:

It is the ‘National System’ That Will Win the Olympic Cold War
By Liao Baoping (廖保平)
August 16, 2008
We are one week into the Beijing Olympic Games, and China’s gold medal count far surpasses that of the United States. While Chinese Olympic officials have said time and again that winning gold medals is not the chief purpose of holding the Olympics, the U.S.-China war for gold medals remains the topic everyone is paying most attention to.
For a long time, the United States has dominated Olympic medals tally. The U.S. has participated in 23 Olympic Games and has topped the medals chart for 16 of these Games, a remarkable achievement. It is still unclear whether or not China will shake America’s dominance at this year’s Olympics, and it would be rash to make predictions. Still, looking at the current standings, it seems only China has the strength to challenge the U.S. on this count. And who can say China won’t succeed, even if the U.S. may have the upper hand in track and field events.
In a short 20 years China has managed to transition from “the sick man of East Asia” (东亚病夫) to a “sports superpower” (体育强国), from zero gold medals to leading the gold medals table. This is a surprise not just for Chinese, but for the whole world. And this further evidences China’s steady rise over the last two decades.
This perhaps confirms the principle that national power and prosperity leads to strength in athletics. There is some reason in this. After all, if the people of a country don’t even have food to fill their bellies, how can they possibly find the strength for athletics? But this is not entirely true either. We all know that North Korea is not a developed nation, and yet it has not fallen behind in athletics, and in some events, for example women’s soccer and archery, it even excels.
Some countries in the world are rising powers, for example India . . . which in recent years has developed rapidly and bears some similarities to China, but India has won just one gold medal in these Olympic Games — it is 24 years after China in breaking through its slump of zero gold medals. So perhaps this tell us that national strength does not necessarily equal athletic strength.
Strength in athletic competition has to come from physical resources, from investment of wealth — this is a simple fact. Without the investment of people, resources and assets there is no conceivable way [a nation’s] athleticism can win out amidst fierce competition. The only difference is a question of what kind of investment of resources.
From everything we know, China’s method of investing in athletics is a “national system” (举国体制), it is about consolidating national strength and turning it to the athletic system. An academic study has shown that China now has 370,000 students funded by the state for athletic support, and 46,000 professional athletes are supported for sports at the provincial level or above. Such a massive system and group of athletes requires budget expenditures at various government levels, all in order to earn medals at various regional athletic events. Exactly how much this costs no one can say for sure.
In contrast, America’s athletic system was commercialized long ago. According to U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel, while it represents the U.S. in Olympic competition, the U.S. Olympic team receives no support from the government, relying instead on support each year from corporate sponsorship, private fundraising and roughly 150 million dollars funds distributed from the International Olympic Committee. America’s ability to maintain its long-standing dominance in athletics under this sort of investment relies on commercialization and on a stable reserve force of society-wide athletics. But in order to meet “fierce competition,” the U.S. Olympic Committee plans to approach the government about providing support to win the “Olympic Cold War” (奥运冷战).
Clearly, China’s “national system” has been effective in its move from weakness to strength in international athletics over such a short period of time. Or we might say, this highly effective system has made the old medals champion, America, very uneasy, and has caused it to think about how it might reproduce these results.
What is different, however, is that the U.S. Olympic Committee seeks additional funding by “requesting” it, and the matter of whether or not the government provides funding is one that must be decided by the taxpayers to see whether they approve of this kind of “campaign of national image building” (国家形象工程). Our own Olympic committee does not, unfortunately, face these sorts of concerns. Under this “national system” money is simply spent when its there, and strength expended. The government takes the initiative in expending resources.
We expended so many resources on athletics, and yet we can still sense how little of this has been shared with ordinary citizens. In our cities, we can see public exercise facilities, but in the countryside perhaps not even a single ping pong table is tough to find. This tells us that our “national system” for athletics is about using our national strength so that a few people can early gold and silver medals, about many people paying so that a few can perform. So, whether becoming a strong gold medal nation means that we’ve become a nation of strong athletics — this is something we have to hang a question mark over.
Of course we hope that China wins many gold medals, that it upsets U.S. dominance in the Games, and that we can hold our heads high in the arena of international sports. But we hope even more that we can also win a gold medal in the development of athleticism among ordinary people. I believe that when that time comes, when we have a solid foundation of society-wide sports involvement, then Chinese men’s soccer will no longer be as it is today, and that everyone will be able to taste the joy of sports.

Phelps, China Dominate Opening Week,” AP, August 17, 2008
U.S. vs China: Is This Good Versus Evil,” Bleecher Report, August 14, 2008
[Posted August 18, 2008, 12:19pm HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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