It is said that a journey of 1,000 lǐ begins with a single step. The same is true of a race of 100 meters and a nation’s journey to the Olympic spotlight.

In 1932, a young man named Liu took that step when he moved into his starting position for the Olympic 100-meter race. At that moment, Liu Changchun was the first Chinese ever to participate in the Olympic Games, and he was the only representative of the young Chinese republic at the Olympics in Los Angeles.

Exactly 11.1 seconds later, the first chapter of Chinese Olympic history was over. Liu Changchun had been eliminated in the first preliminary heat, finishing well behind most of his foreign competitors. At that point, Liu’s embarrassment was yet another open wound in the long history of defeats and humiliation that China had suffered at the hands of foreign powers. Only a month before the Los Angeles Olympics, the Japanese military machine had overrun a helpless Chinese army in Manchuria. Humiliation had been a constant in Chinese history for almost a century, starting with the defeats during the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. Defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War was even more devastating for China’s self-image. After all that, Liu Changchun’s failure was just another sign of Chinese backwardness and weakness.

More than 70 years later, another young Chinese man, again named Liu, moved into his starting position for an Olympic sprinting competition, the 110-meter hurdles. Again the expectations of a whole nation weighed on a young man’s shoulders. This time, however, when the starting shot was fired, the hopes of his people did not drag the young man down. Indeed, he seemed to be buoyed by those hopes. He flew over the hurdles as rarely a man had. Exactly 12.91 seconds later, equaling the world record time, Liu Xiang had won China’s first Olympic gold medal in a track-and-field competition and was about to become one of China’s greatest sports heroes. Liu’s gold medal was China’s crowning achievement at the 2004 Athens Olympics, placing the Chinese team second only to the U.S. team in the gold medal count. The special significance of Liu’s victory, however, was the fact that he won in a sport in which the Chinese were traditionally not considered to be serious competitors because of their smaller and less-muscular physique. Liu Xiang’s victory marked the beginning of the end of the assumption that Chinese athletes are able to excel in only a narrow field of sports. Liu, interviewed after his victory, said before bursting into tears, “I proved that Chinese people, Asian people and yellow-skinned people are able to do well in track events.”

These words expressed not only Liu Xiang’s pride and happiness over his victory but also the frustrations that past generations of Chinese had endured. His feeling echoed a feeling that characterizes an important part of today’s China: the feeling of finally having overcome the era of weakness. China, during a short period of time, has risen from being an athletic development country to being one of the foremost sports powers in the world. This rise in the world of sports, mirroring China’s overall rise to new economic and political power, has left many experts baffled. How did the Chinese do it?

Ingredients of Success

The foundation of athletic success is, in China as in every other country, the athletic talent embedded within the population. Being the most populous country in the world, China obviously has the advantage of a vast number of people from which to extract athletic talent. However, this extraction of talent requires a sophisticated and highly organized sports system that identifies athletic talent and gives it the necessary environment in which to develop. The Chinese elite sports system, which made an unprecedented leap forward during the last two decades, progressed thanks largely to the carefully managed interplay of two ingredients: (1) an organizational infrastructure to detect and accommodate athletic talent and (2) the financial and human resources to provide adequate sports facilities and training technology. In order to provide these two ingredients, China developed a distinctive elite sports system that combines potent characteristics of the Western-style sports system with the old Soviet-style approach. The Chinese elite sports system, adopted during the 1980s, depends on Jǔguó tǐzhì ( 举国体制 )—the support of the whole country for the elite sports system. This approach, which gives priority to the task of elite sports development, assures that all available sports resources are channeled into elite sports.

Organizational Infrastructure

The organizational infrastructure of Chinese elite sports follows many of the principles of the old Soviet sports system. It features a state-led and tightly controlled, highly centralized, strictly hierarchical system that relies almost entirely on state funding. Efforts to decentralize the system and to promote selfsupporting and less-government-dependent sports development have largely failed to produce significant results so far.

One core element of the organizational infrastructure of elite sports in China is its far-reaching, effective system of talent scouting and advancement, frequently called the “pagoda system.” The basis of this system is mandatory physical education in the regular schools and in spare-time sports schools. Only through an extensive scouting system on this basic level can the potential of the large Chinese gene pool be used and athletic talent identified across the country. Sports scouts travel the country, visiting regular schools in their search for athletic potential. They discover talented athletes sometimes as young as five or six years of age. If children show exceptional talent, they might be offered entry to the multilevel elite sports education system, consisting of a network of specialized sports schools. Depending on their age, such children will be sent to one of almost 500 elite sports primary schools or more than 200 elite sports middle and high schools. Currently approximately 400,000 young athletes are being trained in these schools. Their potential for different sports will be examined, and their training will be individualized accordingly. If they distinguish themselves during competitions against their peers, they will be promoted to the upper levels of the pagoda system at the municipal- and provincial-level sports schools, where they will be in full residency and extensively trained. From there they will have the chance of being called to the national teams and to compete in international competitions. China trains about 3,000 world-class athletes on the national level—almost three times as many as the United States.

Financial and Human Resources

However, organizational infrastructure alone does not explain the extraordinary rise of Chinese sports. For many decades, the Chinese sports system suffered from a lack of material resources, which translated into inadequate training facilities and backward training technology. The organizational system to detect and accommodate athletic talent was in place, but China did not have the monetary means to transform talented children into world-class athletes. China’s astonishing economic improvement after the reform of its economy during the 1980s provided the necessary second ingredient for athletic success: financial and human resources. After initiation of economic reform, sports facilities and equipment for elite sports education in China experienced a massive upgrade. Since then, more money has been channeled into the improvement of sports facilities and into the introduction of foreign, state-of-the-art training technology.

Also, training methodology has become more scientific. The traditional training method, based on the “three unafraids” (unafraid of hardship, difficulty, and injury) and the “five toughnesses” (toughness of spirit, body, skill, training, and competition), still plays an important role in Chinese training methodology, but it has been complemented by more scientific techniques of coaching, sports psychology, and sports medicine. To facilitate this transformation, China has imported foreign expertise in training methodology, hiring successful foreign sports coaches from all over the world. Legendary Yugoslavian soccer coach Bora Milutinovic, who led the Chinese national team into the 2002 World Cup Finals and enjoyed enormous popularity in China, is only one of many examples. With this flow of material resources into its sports system, China combines the most potent features of two different worlds: the strictness and meticulousness of the Soviet-style sports system and the sophistication and innovativeness of Western-style training, technology, and methodology. By the mid-1980s, all the ingredients for China’s ascent as a global sports power were present. However, ingredients alone do not bake the cake.

Driving Force: Political Dividends

Important as they are, an organizational infrastructure and financial and human resources do not produce a highly successful sports system by themselves: it takes intense interest in athletic accomplishments on the part of people in power to channel resources into elite sports. In China’s case, the prerequisite is the political will of the Chinese Communist Party. The enthusiasm and determination that the party displays for the advancement of Chinese athletes suggest that the political benefits deriving from athletic success are particularly high for China’s political leadership. In particular, athletic success yields three forms of political dividends: strengthening of international esteem, intensification of national unity, and demonstration of systemic strength.

Strengthening of International Esteem

A significant factor in China’s unparalleled economic development, which to an extent is based on foreign direct investment, is the Western image of China as a land of limitless economic growth and opportunity: the West sees China as strong, economically. However, most investors are nervous by nature, and capital is increasingly mobile, even in China. Therefore, the narrative of China’s ascent needs to be fed constantly with new successes, and winning Olympic gold medals is an effective way of feeding the narrative. Achievements of Chinese athletes in international sports, especially in events that are the focus of intense public attention, such as the Olympic Games, are a compelling way of asserting China’s power and earning international esteem. International esteem is also a prerequisite for claiming a more influential position within the international political system. Therefore, the success of Chinese athletes does indeed yield a great political dividend on the international stage.

Intensification of National Unity

The athletic arenas of the modern world are the cradles of the national heroes of our time. The rise of Chinese sports has created many national sports heroes, such as Liu Xiang in track and field, Yao Ming in basketball, and Guo Jingjing in Olympic women’s diving. These heroes have become a focal point of national sentiment that bridges the deep socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural rifts that divide today’s China. In a country as vulnerable to fragmentation as China, whose national coherence is constantly threatened by deeply entrenched divisions running through society, all-embracing symbols of national unity are of great political value. When Chinese spectators watch a Chinese athlete achieve victory, it does not matter if those spectators are poor farmers from Guizhou or rich businessmen from Guangdong, veterans of the Communists’ Long March of 1934–35 or their grandchildren who spend their days online gaming in an Internet cafe, Uighurs from Hohhot or Han Chinese from Beijing.

When such spectators witness Chinese athletes outclassing their competitors, these unbridgeable differences are forgotten, and all of these people are, at least for the moment, mainly one thing: Chinese. Sports have an extraordinary ability to create a feeling of national connectedness that overcomes the divisions of class, age, and ethnicity. Success in sports is a powerful source of national pride and unity. For China’s political leadership, whose power is directly connected to the susceptible unity and coherence of the People’s Republic of China, this effect of sports obviously yields an enormous political dividend, creating a strong political incentive to allocate resources to the elite sports system.

Demonstration of Systemic Strength

A third important political dividend lies in the power of association. International competitiveness in sports is the privilege of wealthy and powerful nations. China’s rise in the athletic arena can therefore be utilized as a symbol of the strength of the Chinese political system and its leadership, as a symbol of the competence of the Chinese Communist Party. The glow of the gold medals around Chinese athletes’ necks also shines a positive light on the performance of the Chinese political elite. And most Chinese athletes are indeed well versed in stressing that their success is owed to the Chinese state and the party. During a time when the Chinese Communist Party faces enormous political challenges to its power, when its legitimacy is no longer measured by revolutionary heritage but rather by tangible political performance and success, the party is in dire need of ways to prove its capability. The party’s claim to be the sole source of power within the Chinese political system is becoming less and less self-evident and increasingly needs to be backed up by accomplishment. Producing successful athletes is one way for the political leadership to demonstrate its capacity and to strengthen its assertion that the current political system is the only way to lead China into a future full of challenges.

Color the Future yellow and Red

The unprecedented rise of China as a global sports power is the product of an interplay of mutually reinforcing factors. From the beginning of the period of reform in the 1980s, the political dividends of sports success have been high. The organizational structure necessary for the creation of a superlative sports power was already in place, and the material means began to be readily available. Subsequently, virtually all the stars were aligned for the ascent of China as a global sports power—and that is why five equally aligned stars, in bright yellow on red ground, will certainly be seen many times as the national flags are raised at the medal ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Source: Conrad, Bjoern. (2007). China’s Rise to Sporting Power. Guanxi: The China Letter, 15, 1.