Sport’s training systems require care monitoring of the athlete’s various muscular and cardiovascular capacities. Here, a young athlete is tested at the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at the National Research Institute of Sport Science in 1980. PHOTO BY HOWARD KNUTTGEN.
China has used the success of its economic reforms to create an elite sports training system that finds and develops athletes from the country’s vast population. The effectiveness of this system was shown in the 2008 Olympics, when China won fifty-one gold medals—more than any other country.
In 1932 Liu Changchun 刘长春 became the first Chinese athlete to participate in the Olympic Games and was the lone representative of Republican China (1912–1949) at the Olympics in Los Angeles.
Seconds later—11.1 seconds, to be precise—the first chapter of Chinese Olympic history was over as Liu Changchun was eliminated in the first preliminary heat of the 100-meter race, finishing well behind most of his competitors.
Liu’s defeat became yet another in the long history of defeats that China had suffered at the hands of foreign powers. For almost a century humiliation had been a constant of Chinese history, beginning with the losses of the Opium Wars during the mid-1800s at the hands of the technologically superior Western powers. The First Sino-Japanese War of 1895, lost to an until-then inconsequential neighbor, was even more damaging to China’s self-image. Finally, just a month before the Olympics in Los Angeles, Japan had overrun a helpless Chinese army in Manchuria. Sprinter Liu Changchun’s failure in the preliminary heat seemed to be yet another sign of Chinese weakness.
More than seventy years later another young Chinese athlete, again named “Liu,” crouched into his starting position for an Olympic race, the 110-meter hurdles. The expectations of a whole nation again weighed on a young man’s shoulders. However, this time the expectations of a nation did not drag down the young man. Indeed, Liu Xiang 刘翔 seemed buoyed by those expectations. He fairly flew over the hurdles, and 12.91 seconds later, equaling the world record time, Liu had won China’s first Olympic gold medal in track and field and was about to become one of China’s greatest athletic heroes.
Liu’s gold medal was China’s crowning glory at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, placing China second only to the United States in the gold medal total. However, the real significance of Liu’s victory was the fact that he won in a sport in which the Chinese were traditionally not seen as strong competitors because of their smaller and less-muscular physique. Liu Xiang’s gold medal marked the beginning of the end of the presumption that Chinese athletes can excel in only a narrow range of sports. Interviewed after his victory, Liu said before he burst into tears: “I proved that Chinese people, Asian people, and yellow-skinned people are able to do well in track events” (Armitage 2004).
His sentiment expressed not only his pride in his victory but also the frustration that past generations of Chinese had suffered. His words echoed a sentiment that remains important today: the joy—and relief—that the Chinese feel at finally having overcome an era of weakness and isolation. During a short time China has risen from being, in athletic terms, a developing country to being one of the world superpowers. This rise, reflecting China’s overall rise to political and economic power, has baffled many experts and begs this question: How did China do it?
Keys to Success
The foundation of athletic success in China is, as in every other country, athletic talent residing within the population. China, being the most populous country in the world, has the obvious advantage of a vast number of people from which to draw sports talent. This extraction of talent, however, requires a highly organized sports system that identifies and develops talent. The development of China’s elite sports system, which made an unprecedented “great leap forward” during the last two decades, required the interplay of two ingredients: organizational infrastructure to find and accommodate athletic talent and the financial and human resources to provide sports facilities and training technology.
To provide these two ingredients, China developed an elite sports system that combines characteristics of the Western approach with the old Soviet approach.
Elite Sports System
China’s elite sports system, adopted during the period of reform and opening up starting in the 1980s, is based on the Juguo tizhi 举国体制 approach—the support of the whole country for the elite sports system. This approach, which gives priority to elite sports development, assures that all available sports resources are channeled into elite sports.
The organizational infrastructure of the system follows many of the principles of the old Soviet sports system. It features a tightly controlled, highly centralized, strictly hierarchical, state-led system that almost entirely relies on state funding. Efforts to transform the system that was established during the 1950s into a more decentralized system that promotes self-supporting (and less-government-dependent) sports development have so far largely failed.
A key aspect of the organizational infrastructure of China’s elite sports system is the far-reaching system of talent scouting and advancement, often called the “pagoda system.” The foundation of the pagoda system is mandatory physical education in regular schools and in spare-time sports schools.
Only by a thorough scouting system on this fundamental level can the potential of China’s vast gene pool be tapped and athletic talent found. Sports scouts canvass the country, visiting regular schools in their search for students with sports potential. They find athletes who are as young as five or six years of age. If young athletes show enough talent, they might be invited into the multilevel elite sports education system, which consists of a network of specialized sports schools. Such children, depending on their age, are sent to one of almost five hundred elite sports primary schools or more than two hundred elite sports middle schools and high schools.
About 400,000 young athletes are being trained in these schools. Their potential for different sports is examined, and their training is individualized accordingly. If they excel during competitions against their peers, they are promoted to the upper levels of the pagoda system at the municipal- and provincial-level sports schools, where they have full residency and are trained extensively. From there they have the chance of being promoted to the national teams and to compete in international competition. On the national level China trains approximately three thousand world-class athletes—almost three times as many as the United States.
Financial and Human Dimensions
Organizational infrastructure alone, however, cannot explain the rise of Chinese sports. The Chinese sports system for decades suffered from a lack of material resources—which is not surprising in a developing country. That lack of resources translated into inadequate training facilities and backward training technology. The organizational system to find and accommodate talent might have been in place, but China lacked the monetary means to transform talented children into world-class athletes.
China’s impressive economic strides after the reform of its economy during the 1980s provided the necessary second key to athletic success: financial and human resources. After the initiation of economic reform, sports facilities and equipment for elite sports education received a massive upgrade. Since then more funding has been directed into the improvement of sports facilities andinto the introduction of foreign, state-of-the-art training technology.
Training methodology also has become more scientific. The traditional training methodology is based on the “three unafraids” 三不怕 (unafraid of hardship, difficulty, and injury) and the “five toughnesses” 五过硬 (toughness of spirit, body, skill, training, and competition). That methodology still plays an important role in Chinese training, but it is now being complemented by more scientific coaching, sports psychology, and sports medicine techniques. To achieve this transformation, China has imported foreign expertise in training methodology by hiring successful sports coaches from all over the world.
For example, legendary Yugoslavian soccer coach Bora Milutinovic led the Chinese national team into the 2002 World Cup finals and enjoyed great popularity in China. With such a flow of material resources into its sports system, China possesses the most potent features of two worlds: the meticulousness and strictness of the Soviet-style sports system and the innovation and sophistication of Western-style training, methodology, and technology. All the ingredients for China’s rise as a world sports power were present by the mid-1980s.
Political Will of the Party
An organizational infrastructure and financial and human resources, important as they are, do not by themselves produce successful sports system. Also necessary is an intense interest in sports accomplishments by people who have the power to direct resources into elite sports. In China’s case the prerequisite is the political will of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The determination and enthusiasm that the CCP shows for the advancement of Chinese sports suggest that the political hay to be made from athletic success is particularly appealing to China’s political leadership. Athletic success yields three forms of political dividends in particular: intensification of national unity, strengthening of international esteem, and demonstration of systemic strength.
An important element in China’s unparalleled economic development, which is based on foreign directinvestment to an extent, is the Western image of China as a land of limitless opportunity and economic growth. Most investors, however, are nervous by nature, and capital, even in China, is increasingly mobile. The narrative of China’s rise, therefore, must constantly be fed with new successes. Winning Olympic gold medals is one way to provide new successes. Victories by China’s athletes in international competition, especially in events that are the focus of public attention, are one good way of asserting China’s power and winning international esteem. Likewise, international esteem is necessary for earning a more influential position in international politics. The success of Chinese athletes, therefore, indeed has a big political payoff on the international stage.
Today’s athletic arenas are the crucibles of today’s national heroes. The ascent of China’s sports has created many national heroes, such as Liu Xiang in track and field, Guo Jingjing 郭晶晶 in Olympic women’s diving, and Yao Ming 姚明 in basketball. Such heroes have become a focus of national sentiment that bridges the ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural gaps that divide China today. In a nation as vulnerable to fragmentation as China is, in a nation whose national coherence is always threatened by deep divisions running through society, all-encompassing icons of national unity have great political value. When Chinese watch a Chinese athlete win, it does not matter if those spectators are poor farmers from Guizhou or rich businessmen from Guangdong, Uygurs from Hohhot or Han Chinese from Beijing.
When such spectators watch Chinese athletes outperform their opponents, deep cultural divisions are forgotten, and all of these spectators are, at least for the moment, one thing: Chinese. Sports can create a feeling of national connectedness that trumps the divisions of class, age, and ethnicity. For China’s political leaders, whose power is directly tied to China’s susceptible unity and coherence, this power of sports pays an enormous political dividend, creating a political incentive to channel resources to the elite sports system.
A third vital political dividend is the power of association. Success in international sports is the privilege of nations that are rich and powerful. China’s ascent in athletics thus can be used as a symbol of the strength of China’s political system and its leadership, as a symbol of the competence of the Chinese Communist Party. The gleam of the medals around the necks of Chinese athletes also reflects positively on the performance of China’s political elite. And indeed most Chinese athletes are versed in reiterating that they owe their success to the Chinese state and the party. At a time when the Chinese Communist Party faces great political challenges to its power, when its legitimacy is measured not by revolutionary heritage but rather by tangible political success, the CCP looks for new ways to show its vitality. Creating great athletes is one way for the CCP to show that vitality and to strengthen its claims that the current political leadership can lead the country into a future filled with challenges.
The political dividends of success in sports have been high since the beginning of the period of reform in the 1980s. The organizational structure needed to create a superlative sports power was already in place, and the material means began to be available. China was ready for the world. And that is why its flag was seen many times as the national flags were raised at the medal ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China won fifty-one gold medals—more than any other country—and one hundred medals in all, second only to the United States.
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Sports Training System (Xùnliàn tǐzhì 训练体制)|Xùnliàn tǐzhì 训练体制 (Sports Training System)