Countdown to the Olympic Games, Beijing. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing was China’s first chance to host the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza. It provided an opportunity for China to showcase both ancient heritage and modern aspirations. Substantial investments in necessary infrastructure and sponsorship accelerated China’s integration with the global economy.

When Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, the event was saturated with cultural meaning, economic expectations, and political significance. The world’s biggest sports extravaganza, hosted for the first time by China and for only the third time by an Asian country, represented a chance for China to showcase both ancient heritage and modern aspirations. It also provided a catalyst for substantial investments in infrastructure and accelerated China’s integration with the global economy—while signaling pride and acceptance on the world stage and a boost to China’s international stature.

Some 200 nations participated in the Beijing games, bringing 10,500 athletes and 20,000 sports officials to town, along with nearly 22,000 accredited media representatives, more than 10,000 unaccredited journalists, and half a million spectators and tourists. The activities unfolded 8–24 August at thirty-one venues in Beijing and six venues in other locales, including Hong Kong, followed by the Paralympics 6–17 September.

Chinese endeavors to earn international acceptance and respect through athletic performance go back to the late nineteenth century and the importation of modern forms of competitive sports, largely in conjunction with Western missionary activities. But decades passed before China began to make a mark on the Olympic movement, and half a century more passed before China began to emerge as an Olympic powerhouse.

The earliest Chinese representation at the games consisted of an official observer at Amsterdam in 1928; the first Chinese athletes entered the games in Los Angeles in 1932. In 1958 the People’s Republic of China (PRC) severed ties with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over the IOC’s inclusion of Taiwan as the Republic of China; not until 1979, coinciding with China’s redirection of development strategy and reopening to the outside world, did the PRC come back into the Olympic fold, with Taiwan taking part as the Chinese Taipei team.

China won fifteen gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, sixteen at the 1992 Barcelona games, and sixteen in Atlanta in 1996. Intensified training of elite athletes in a broader array of Olympic sports brought the count up to twenty-eight gold medals and a total of fifty-nine medals at Sydney in 2000 and thirty-two gold medals and a total of sixty-three medals at Athens in 2004; China now ranks third in the medals total after the United States and Russia. By contrast, China’s Winter Games achievements are much more modest: a cumulative harvest of three gold, fourteen silver, and fourteen bronze medals over the period 1980–2006.

China’s strengths have been in precision sports such as diving, shooting, table tennis, and badminton, with consistent excellence in weightlifting as well. National icons emerging from the Summer Games range from marksman Xu Haifeng, 1984 winner of China’s first Olympic gold, to Liu Xiang, whose 2004 victory in the 110-meter hurdles made him the first Chinese man to win an Olympic track event. Woman diver Fu Mingxia won two gold medals in Atlanta and four in Sydney; the men’s gymnastics team brought home a gold from Sydney; and Chinese partners won the women’s tennis doubles in Athens.

Firing the Imagination: The Olympic Torch

The 2008 Olympic torch relay took place from 25 March to 8 August 2008, prior to the Olympic Games. It lasted 130 days and carried the torch 137,000 kilometers—the longest distance of any Olympic torch relay. After being lit in Olympia, Greece, the torch traveled to the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens and then went to Beijing. From there, the torch followed a route passing through six continents. The torch specifically visited cities on the Silk Roads, symbolizing ancient links between China and the rest of the world. The relay also included a successful attempt to carry the flame to the top of Mount Everest, which it attained May 8, 2008.

The torch traveled to twenty countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, and then made its way through Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao before visiting 113 cities in China. It arrived at its final destination in Beijing on 8 August 2008.

The relay itself will probably be remembered for its political significance, as its widely-publicized route became one of the most regularly covered subjects in the media all over the globe, and because it took place during a period of significant publicity regarding China’s internal turmoil in the Tibet region. Because of this widespread coverage, it then became a prime target for people who wished to protest the central Chinese governing body, on Tibet and other issues. At several locations, including Islamabad, Delhi, and in Indonesia, the torch’s route was cut short, due to security concerns. In other places, only enhanced security was necessary. Nevertheless, the torch arrived safely in Beijing exactly on time. The relay and the Olympics events themselves went on smoothly, despite whorls of debate on the periphery.

Along with the intensified spotlight on athletic prowess, China’s hospitality, organizational abilities, people-moving facilities, command of security, air, weather, and much else came under scrutiny leading up to the geopolitical crucible of the 2008 games. Beijing initially had sought to host the 2000 Olympics, losing out to Sydney in 1993 by a mere two votes at a time when international disapproval of China’s military suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations remained strong. The city’s second bid culminated on 13 July 2001, with joyous celebrations in that same plaza greeting the news that the IOC had selected Beijing for 2008.

The selection was buoyed by public opinion at home; an IOC poll had found 96 percent support for the bid among Chinese urban residents. Beijing pledged to mount a “green,” “high-tech,” and “humanistic” Olympics, with an estimated $400 million going into construction and preparations; about a third of the budget was earmarked for an ambitious environmental protection program that included relocation of entire industrial centers. Relentless road building and subway expansion changed the city map constantly. A recruitment campaign to enlist 100,000 volunteers drew more than four times that number of applicants.

When Beijing made its Olympic bid in 2001, typical Western headlines read, “China Doesn’t Deserve the Olympics” and “Unwelcome Bid from Beijing.” During the bid process, multiple petitions were sent to Chinese leaders, the IOC, a number of national governments, and human rights groups. The U.S. Congress debated a resolution in opposition to the bid.

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (known by the acronym BOCOG), in coordination with the municipal government and to the cheerleading of mass media, orchestrated a prolonged buildup to the games, marking occasions 2 years, 500 days, 1 year, 100 days, and finally 50 days before the opening ceremonies
. The unveiling of slogans, mascots, songs, and other trappings provided cause for additional press conferences and celebrations. Meanwhile the city launched drives to replace poorly translated signage and improve public sanitation and local civility.

Echoes of ancient culture were captured in the games’ official emblem, a figure in the form of a traditional artistic seal; its postmodern face arose in the imposing steel-wrapped National Stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest,” and the National Aquatics Center, or “Water Cube.” The mascots, five cute characters modeled on animals and introduced as the “Friendlies,” later changed to “Fuwas,” translated well to official Olympics merchandise ranging from T-shirts, hats, and key chains to stuffed animals. The games’ official slogan was “One world, one dream.”

China’s athletic hopes for 2008 were particularly high; an Olympic host country typically experiences a boost in medal count due to athletes’ familiarity with venues and home crowd support. In addition, as host, China automatically gained entrance to some sports in which otherwise it would have had to compete for inclusion, including baseball, softball, and soccer; while China’s women were strong contenders in soccer and softball, the men would have been unlikely to qualify in soccer and baseball.

Given the important role of corporate sponsorships in the Olympics, against the backdrop of China’s galloping economic growth and the promise of future expansion in productivity markets, the Beijing games were seen as a boon for business, both domestic and transnational. Concern for possible “losers” of the games, including residents displaced by construction, along with recognition of the value of historic preservation in promoting tourism, ultimately strengthened policies and programs to save what was left of the old city—but not before new construction, most unrelated to the Olympics, had replaced much of Old Beijing. Meanwhile calls by various organizations abroad, including Reporters Without Borders and the Save Darfur campaign, to boycott the Beijing games on human rights grounds appeared to have little traction; many observers still saw the games as a force for social and political improvement.

The Beijing Games will probably be remembered by history as a significant milestone for the PRC, but it has yet to be seen whether or not it will be considered a turning point, as some have hoped. Athletically, many records were broken, including significant achievements by Chinese athletes in both traditionally strong and traditionally weak events. Potential rivalry between the United States and China was muffled by the fact that by using different standards both sides were able to claim victory in the medal count: the Americans counted overall medals, including silver and bronze, and the Chinese counted only gold medals. There were also some unfortunate incidents, including the sad injuries of the Chinese track superstar, Liu Xiang, and the tragic death of a family member of the U.S. men’s volleyball team. Despite these setbacks, the 2008 Olympics will most likely be remembered for its lavish opening ceremonies, its careful and firm planning and security, and the emergence of a China with a strong national identity and desire to express itself as an equal in the modern world.

Further Reading

Brownell, S. (2006, July). Will China change the Olympics? Guanxi: The China Letter, 1(3), 1.

Brownell, S. (2008). Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics mean to China. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Christensen, K. (2006, July). Bringing the world to Beijing. Guanxi: The China Letter, 1(3), 1.

Close, P., Xu Xin, & Askew, D. (2006). The Beijing Olympiad: The political economy of a sporting mega-event. London: Routledge.

Collins, M. (2002, March). China’s Olympics. Contemporary Review, 135–141.

Fan Hong. (2008). China gold: China’s quest for global power and Olympic glory. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.

Fan Hong, Wu Ping, & Xiong Huan. (2006, July). Beijing’s plan for Olympic victory. Guanxi: The China Letter, 1(3), 1.

Worden, M. (2008). China’s great leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian human rights challenges. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Xu Xin. (2006, December). Modernizing China in the Olympic spotlight: China’s national identity and the 2008 Beijing Olympiad. Sociological Review, 54(2), 90–107.

Xu Guoqi (2008). Olympic dreams: China and sports, 1895–2008. Harvard University Press.

A drop of sweat spent in a drill is a drop of blood saved in a battle.

平时多流汗, 战时少流血

Pínɡshí duô liú hàn, zhàn shí shǎo liúxuè

Source: Polumbaum, Judy. (2009). Olympic Games of 2008. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1630–1634. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The uniquely designed Beijing National Stadium, known as the “Bird’s Nest,” hosted the track and field events at the 2008 Olympics. The stadium is pictured here under construction. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

The colorful, eye-catching Beijing National Aquatics Centre, nicknamed the “Water Cube,” hosted the 2008 Olympic water sport events. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

Olympic Games of 2008 (Běijīng Àolínpǐkè Yùndònghuì 北京奥林匹克运动会)|Běijīng Àolínpǐkè Yùndònghuì 北京奥林匹克运动会 (Olympic Games of 2008)

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