By David Bandurski — Last week Liu Peng (刘鹏), head of the General Administration of Sport of China, praised the performance of Chinese athletes at this year’s Olympic Games. That was no surprise, of course. But the top sports official also urged a more sober assessment of the country’s Olympic accomplishments, saying Chinese need to “take a calm view.”
The two aspects of this story played out rather interestingly in China’s mainstream media. While some, like the official Beijing Daily, emphasized only Liu’s words of praise, others, including the unlikely grouping of the party’s official People’s Daily and the more freewheeling Southern Weekend, voiced both aspects of Liu’s remarks (with differences in emphasis).
Here, as a point of reference, is a representative portion of the Beijing Daily article of August 27:
Representing all the workers of China’s Olympic Team, Liu Peng expressed his earnest thanks to the Central Party and the State Council. He said the achievements owed to consistent developments in the economy and society since the onset of the reform and opening policy, and said they were inseparable from the staunch leadership and high-level of attention [to sports] given by the Central Party and the State Council, inseparable from the great support and selfless assistance of the people and various circles of society, and owed also to the struggle and hard work of several generations of sports workers. We will promote a Chinese sports legacy earning esteem for the nation, which praises the athletic spirit of the Chinese people as well as the Olympic spirit . . . [we will] work even harder to win even more excellent achievements for the motherland and the people, marking new progress in the history of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.
You can almost hear the “Olympic spirit” gasping for air in the Beijing Daily passage. But the report hardly does justice to Liu Peng’s comments, which noted four explicit points of weakness revealed by China’s overall Olympic performance.
At the official People’s Daily these four points were reserved for an article on page 12, toward the back of the paper, while an article top-loaded with Liu’s rosiest remarks, the same as in Beijing Daily, was pushed up to page four. Articles identical to the latter, and without coverage of the “four points,” were run in Guangming Daily, Economic Daily and most provincial party dailies with the exception of more rounded coverage in Fujian Daily.
In the page 12 article in People’s Daily, general praise is followed by this round-up:
Liu Peng pointed out in his summary that we should take a calm view of the achievements of China’s Olympic team.
Firstly, from the make-up of medals won by China’s Olympic team we can see that at 51, gold medals make up 51 percent of the total of 100 medals won, which tells us that preparations for competition were thorough, that athletes performed well when put to the test, and that they had a high degree of success in grabbing gold. However, we still fall behind the U.S. in medals for those areas that reveal the overall competitive athletic strength of a nation, and this reveals that there is still a gap in our overall strength.
Secondly, to assess the strength of competitive athletics in a given country or region, we need to look not only at the number of gold and other medals, but also at performance in track and filed, swimming, bicycling other events with a major international influence, as well as team events [like soccer and basketball] that are popular. In these events we are still not on par internationally, and we must work even harder at this very difficult task.
Thirdly, the space for [additional medals] in our strong events was exhausted following the Athens Olympics, and we must further expand our reach for gold, making further breakthroughs in events of potential strength, as only in this way can we meet fiercer Olympic competition in the future.
At the same time, in competition at this Olympic Games, while our performance was excellent in most events, there were also a number of events in which we did not wholly achieve the level we should have, having many problems on the technical and tactical level, and also in terms of [competitive] style on the field, showing a substantial gap with other strong national teams.
A handful of media saw Liu Peng’s rather moderate comments as an opportunity to delve deeper into the relative strengths and weaknesses of China’s sports system.
Most notable was last week’s edition of Southern Weekend, which invited a powerful panel of sports experts to reflect on the need for reform in Chinese sports. For many within the field, apparently, China’s Olympic victories are now seen as offering the perfect opportunity to address tough and long-standing questions about the “national sports system” that did the country proud in Beijing.
Also in the most recent edition of Southern Weekend was an editorial by Cao Xin (曹辛) employing Liu Peng’s comments and discussing the need to develop more comprehensive athletics that draw general participation by China’s public.
The central point is not unlike other arguments we have seen in recent days about the drawbacks of the national system.
Cao’s editorial concludes:
“Developing the athletic movement” comes down to “enhancing the fitness of the people.” This is the heart and the basic foundation of sports in China and a manifestation of the principle of “governing for the people” (执政为民). All commercial value and interests should work toward this overarching goal alone, so let us endeavor to move in this direction!
We cannot, unfortunately, given time limitations, do the Southern Weekend interview justice.
We recommend that those who can read Chinese spare some time for the original. Those of you that do so, also please advise us of any inadequacies in our very rapid translation. Portions of the lengthy piece follow:
The internal structure and function of the General Administration of Sport and local sports authorities must change – the sooner the better and the more actively the better.
How should China’s sports system be reformed after the Olympics? This paper interviewed Wei Jizhong (魏纪中), a member of the Beijing Olympic Committee and former secretary of the China Olympic Committee, Lu Yuanzhen (卢元镇), who is responsible for the General Administration of Sport’s research program for the deepening of administrative reforms in the sports sector, and Beijing Sports University professor Xiong Xiaozheng (熊晓正) . . .
China’s performance at this Olympic Games is seen as another success for China’s “national sports system” (举国体制).
Southern Weekend: How do we evaluate China’s breakthrough achievements this time around?
Wei Jizhong: I want to say, first of all, that our winning of gold medals owes primarily to the individual effort of our athletes. What I want to emphasize is that the “national sports system” serves as a kind of safeguard for these athletes. When looking at a problem, we need to be sure to see the big picture.
I’ll give you an example. This time around the amount of award money given to our athletes for gold medals rose substantially, and this caused many people to question whether it was too much. But actually this is a change to the system this time around, and award money for athletes works as a kind of social security. In fact, this amount is not really so much. From an economic perspective these athletes have paid a high opportunity cost, and this is also about employing a new form of award system to compensate them for this cost.
Xiong Xiaozheng: We topped the gold medal tally at this Olympics, and there is no doubt that the “national sports system” contributed to this progress.
SW: Did the athletics research community have any idea that China would achieve such a favorable result?
Lu Yuanzhen: China’s competitive sports system is a relatively closed one, and so it was a mystery to everyone how many gold medals Chinese would win at the Olympics. China has a rather authoritative athletic training expert who during a 2006 forum predicted that China would win anywhere from 20 plus or minus 5 gold medals to 40 plus or minus 5 gold medals. So even our best authorities could not predict accurately . . . The Chinese public, for example, has no impression of the trampoline event, for example, and all of a sudden this time we have two champions in this event. The principle reason for this is that China, unlike other nations, does not hold open athletic trials but has national squad system (集训制度). Once athletes are selected they are kept secret so the outside world does not know. And as there were many athletes who had not previously competed in the Olympics this is quite normal – they might have been secret weapons before and they are suddenly let loose. This is also a tactical move.
SW: Do you think this Olympics will become a culminating point?
Wei Jizhong: This time we won 51 golds. Could we win 52 next time? Medal hauls by nature go up and down, and every athlete must reach peak condition [to medal]. Getting so many athletes to peak all at once is difficult. So as to whether or not we can top it at the next Olympics, I think that if we don’t win as many gold medals this would be understandable . . .
Lu Yuanzhen: Our country will not have so many athletes competing at the next Olympic Games, and we won’t have the home field advantage. In addition, there is no guarantee that the government will invest so much next time . . .
SW: Why is it that academics generally feel that this period after the 2008 Olympics is a crossroads and an opportunity for reform?
Lu Yuanzhen: This is because this Olympics cannot be repeated within a short period of time, and for a long time after this we won’t be given a second opportunity, so this has offered us a definite time for reform.
To a large degree we have put off reforms in the past because we were preparing for these Olympic Games. We began our bid for the Olympic Games back in 1993, and we have spent more than ten years in preparation for our hosting [of the Games]. During this time we could only pursue short-term and highly effective methods by mobilizing the strength of government. But after hosting these Olympics, if during the next Olympic Games China takes fewer gold medals the people will be able to accept this.
Moreover, as you can see from the tolerance this time towards Liu Xiang (刘翔) and Du Li (杜丽), ordinary Chinese are becoming much more mature in their attitude [toward Olympic competition], which speaks to a transition in expectations from gold medal nationalism to cultural enjoyment, and this too has created a favorable mental climate for reforms in China. Ordinary people have become more realistic in their attitudes, hoping that sports can better serve everyone. In this sense we are faced with an opportunity.
There is also a larger atmosphere of reform, including administrative reforms such as super-ministry reform kicked off this year, and our lagging sports system naturally also needs to be reformed.
Xiong Xiaozheng: Hosting the 2008 Olympic Games should have a definite impact on the deepening reforms in Chinese athletics . . . Stability is in the overall national interest, and this is something that those in sports or other parts of society have an understanding and appreciation for. In the end reform is about the readjustment of interests, and it is very easy to create waves. If we do not have stable and peaceful environment then preparing for Olympic competition is rather difficult . . .
When a major competition like the Olympics is finished we are not under so much pressure, so we have the right opportunity and environment in which to carry out reforms. When major competitions are rather frequent, the General Administration of Sports is too busy preparing for competition and the pressure to win gold and silver means they do not dare to carry out reforms.
SW: But if we won so many gold medals at this Olympics, why is there any need for reforms?
Lu Yuanzhen: First of all, China’s national sports system is not without its problems. The issue of soccer, for example, has never been resolved and still remains an old and major problem. Moreover, physical health among Chinese students has steadily gone down over the last 20 years, and this is a major problem. We can’t think that one good feature can redeem a hundred bad ones, that we can glosss over these [other issues] with a strong gold medal count. Another problem is considering the future for athletes once they’ve retired from competition, and how to sustain the training of alternate athletes (后备力量). This is the problem of the inverted pyramid, in which sports resources are highly monopolized at the top and there is a low degree of sustainability, so we can’t always just focus on right now.
The overall physical fitness of our people lacks sufficient strength to win gold medals, and more of the athletic events [in which we excel] rely on technique, such as gymnastics, table tennis, and diving. In those events that might display the fitness of our people we are relatively poor. From this we should glimpse the problems that exist. Liu Xiang’s withdrawal from competition this time around speaks to this problem. 1.3 billion people cared dearly about that gold medal, and if all of our gold medals relied so fully on a single athlete (“一人系天下”的情况) this would be hazardous. Another thing is our athletics industry. If we do not carry out reforms then foreign capital will swallow us up.
SW: Will our success at these Olympic Games give a different voice of urgency to the need for reforms?
Lu Yuanzhen: Our success at these Olympic Games revealed the positives of our “national sports system” (举国体制), but regardless of how the outside world views these successes, I think the overall direction is reform.
Southern Weekend interview with Lang Ping, ESWN, August 21, 2008
[Posted by David Bandurski, September 1, 2008, 3:36pm HK]