CHANG Sheng 常生 and LU Zhouxiang 吕洲翔

Athletics, also known as track and field, is probably the most basic and universal of physical competitions. The name of the sport originated from the Greek word athlon, meaning “contest,” and it describes a collection of sports that include running, throwing, and jumping events.

In ancient China, as elsewhere around the world, athletics were often related to military training. During the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770–476 BCE), soldiers would be trained in running, leaping and wrestling, riding, jousting, and the use of weapons. It’s no surprise that the first athletic event in the ancient Olympics was a foot race known as the stade. The earliest records of this event can be dated back to 776 BCE. Events such as longer foot races, a race in armor, and the pentathlon (consisting of the stade, long jump, discus throw, javelin throw, and wrestling) were also included in the ancient Olympic Games, as well as in the Isthmian, Nemean, Roman, and Pythian Games, collectively known as the Panhellenic Games.

The earliest recorded athletic meeting of the modern era was organized at Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, by the Royal Shrewsbury School Hunt. In 1896 athletics was an official men’s event in the first modern Olympic Games. But it was not until 1928 that women were allowed to participate in track-and-field events in the Olympic Games.

The athletics events in the modern Olympic Games can be divided into four areas: track, field, road, and combined events (see table 1).

Table 1: Track and Field Events in the Olympic Games

Area Events
Track events Sprints (100m, 200m, 400m)
Middle-distance running (800m, 1,500m)
Long-distance running (5,000m, 10,000m)
Hurdling (100m and 400m for women, 110m and 400m for men)
Relays (4x100m and 4x400m)
3,000m steeplechase
Field events Long jump, triple jump, high jump, pole vault, shot put, discus,
javelin, and hammer throw (for both men and women)
Road events Men’s and women’s marathons
Men’s 20km and 50km race walking
Women’s 10km race walking
Combined events Heptathlon for women
Decathlon for men

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) was founded in 1912. The IAAF established separate outdoor World Championships in 1983. There are a number of regional games as well, such as the European Championships, the Pan American Games, and the Commonwealth Games. In addition there is a professional Golden League circuit, culminating with the IAAF World Athletics Final, as well as indoor championship meets, such as the World Indoor Championships.

Modern Athletics Comes to China

In the late nineteenth century, Western missionaries introduced modern athletics to China and started to organize athletic meetings at missionary schools and colleges. In 1890 China’s first modern athletic meet was held at St. John’s College in Shanghai. A few years later, athletic sports such as race walking, running, jumping, and throwing were introduced to Chinese schools in big cities. Some schools in Tianjin held athletic meetings in 1902. The initial National Athletics Meeting took place in Nanjing, the capital of the republic, in 1907, and more than eighty schools participated.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the central government considered athletics as a valuable sport for the nation and started to promote it. Beginning in 1953 China has held the National Athletics Meeting each year.

The government’s support of athletics was rewarded when ZHENG Fengrong 郑凤荣, a female athlete from Shandong Province, was crowned the champion in women’s high jump at the International Athletics Championship in Berlin in 1957. In the same year, she set a new world record for the women’s high jump with a leap of 1.77 meters at the Beijing Athletic Meeting. This victory made her the first Asian athlete to break an athletic world record since 1936.

In the 1960s athletes in Taiwan performed very impressively on the international stage. For example, in 1960 YANG Chuanguang 杨传广 from Taiwan Province won a silver medal in the men’s decathlon at the Seventeenth Olympic Games in Rome. In 1963 the records of more than fifty Chinese athletes met the entrance requirements for the Tokyo Olympic Games (held in 1964). In 1968 JI Zheng 纪政 from Taiwan won a bronze medal in the women’s 80-meter hurdles at the Nineteenth Olympics in Mexico City. In 1969 and 1970, at the international athletic matches held in Munich, she also broke the world records of the 100-meters, 200-meters, 100-meter women’s hurdles, and 200-meter women’s hurdles.

In the 1980s, when China opened up to the outside world, Chinese athletes began to appear on the international sports stage. ZHU Jianhua 朱建华 broke the world record for the high jump three times in 1983 and 1984, with jumps of 2.37, 2.38, and 2.39 meters. XU Yongjiu 徐永久 and YAN Hong 阎红 were crowned champions in 10-kilometer race walking in 1983 and 1985. HUANG Zhihong 黄志宏 won the women’s shot put world championship in 1989. Chinese athletes won -twenty–nine (men 11, women 18) gold medals at the Eleventh Asian Games held in Beijing in 1990. Their brilliant victory demonstrated China’s dominance in athletics in Asia at the time.

Table 2: Chinese Olympic Medals, 1984–2004

Year Location Medals Athlete Event
1984 Los Angeles Bronze Zhu Jianhua Men’s high jump
1988 Seoul Bronze Li Sumei Women’s shot put
1992 Barcelona Gold Chen Yueling Women’s 10,000m race walking
1992 Barcelona Silver Huang Zhihong Women’s shot put
1992 Barcelona Bronze Li Chunxiu Women’s 10,000m
1992 Barcelona Bronze Qu Yunxia Women’s 1,500m
1996 Atlanta Gold Wang Junxia Women’s 5,000m
1996 Atlanta Silver Wang Junxia Women’s 10,000m
1996 Atlanta Silver Sui Xinmei Women’s shot put
1996 Atlanta Bronze Wang Yan Women’s 10km race walking
2000 Sydney Gold Wang Liping Women’s 20km race walking
2004 Athens Gold Liu Xiang Men’s 110m hurdles
2004 Athens Gold Xiang Huina Women’s 1,0000m

Chinese athletes also achieved victories at the Olympic Games and world championships. In 1988 LI Sumei 李素梅 won the bronze medal of the women’s shot put with a record of 21.06 meters at the Twenty-fourth Olympic Games in Seoul. In 1991 HUANG Zhihong 黄志红 and XU Demei 徐德妹 won the gold medals in the women’s shot put and javelin throw respectively at the Third IAAF World Championships. In 1992 CHEN Yueling 陈跃玲 won the gold medal in women’s 10-kilometer race walking at the Twenty-fifth Olympics in Barcelona. In 1993 JIANG Bo 姜波 set a new world record in the women’s 5,000 meters. In 2001 HUANG Yanmei 董艳梅 ranked fourth in the women’s 5000 meters at the IAAF World Championships in Canada. GAO Shuying 高淑英 ranked fifth in the women’s pole vault.

The most distinguished victory for the Chinese was LIU Xiang’s 刘翔 gold medal in men’s 110-meter hurdles at the Athens Olympic Game in 2004. His brilliant victory made him the first Chinese male athlete to win a gold medal in a men’s track-and-field event at the Olympic Games. It broke the myth that “yellow-skin people could not jump and run fast.” It also made him a hero in China and throughout Asia.

From 1984 to 2004 China participated in six Olympic Games. Table 2 shows China’s progress in the medal count.

In twenty-first-century China, new training bases have been built to meet the needs of athletes and coaches. For example, a new training facility located at Shangrila Mountain in Yunan Province was established in 2007. The altitude of this training base is above 3,200 meters. Altitude-training programs for the Chinese national race-walking team will be carried out there.

In addition, China has sent dozens of athletes abroad for advanced training programs. For example, China sent eight elite athletes to the United States for a five-month training program in 2007. All the costs for such training are covered by the government. The General Administration of Sport of China has spent more than 500 billion RMB on training programs for elite athletes.

Eyes on Beijing 2008

The starting point of the 2008 Olympic marathon event is at Tiananmen Square with the race finishing in the National Stadium. The start/finish point of the race-walking event is also the National Stadium. The race will be a round trip on a 2-kilometer course at the boulevard on the Olympic Green. Eleven hundred male athletes and nine hundred female athletes will participate in the athletic events of the Beijing Olympic Games and forty-seven sets of medals will be awarded.

Traditionally, the United States has dominated the men’s and women’s 100 meters, 200 meters, and 400 meters. For the men’s 100 meters, Tyson Gay from the United States and Asafa Powell from Jamaica are the most capable competitors. For the women’s 100 meters, Allyson Felix from the United States may win the gold medal. For the men’s 110-meter hurdles, the war for the gold medal may break out between Liu Xiang from China, Terrence Trammell from the United States, and Dayron Robles from Cuba.

For the long-distance events, the dominance of Ethiopia and Kenya seems unchallengeable. Tirunesh Dibaba, the current world record holder of women’s 5,000 meters from Ethiopia will be the most capable competitor in that event. For the women’s marathon, ZHOU Chunxiu 周春秀 ,the champion of the London Marathon in 2007, will face strong opponents from Kenya and Japan. For the men’s walking race, twenty-eight-year-old HAN Yucheng 韩玉成 from China is a capable competitor for a medal.

The First China-born Olympic Medalist

Eric Liddell, the runner portrayed in Chariots of Fire who refused for religious reasons to run on a Sunday, was the first Olympic gold medalist born in China.

Liddell, known in China as Lee Airui, was the son of Scottish missionaries and grew up in Tianjin, a city southwest of Beijing. At the 1924 Olympics in Paris, Liddell, a devout Christian, found himself unable to participate in the preliminary heats for his own event, the 100-meter race. Instead, he made a last minute switch to the 400-meter contest. He not only won the race but set a new world record, and became a symbol of personal faith as well as athletic brilliance.

Returning to China, he became a coach at the Xinxue School in Tianjin, a mission school that is now Tianjin’s Middle School #17. During World War II he was imprisoned by the Japanese in North China. He died there, in the land where he was born, and today a plaque in Tianjin commemorates the home of Lee Airui, China’s first Olympic medalist.

China’s Athletes in the Lead

WANG Junxia 王军霞 (b. 1973) has been regarded as one of the best long-distance runners in China’s sports history. In 1992 Wang won the world junior champion in the 10,000 meters (32:29.90) in Seoul. In 1993 she won the title in the women’s 10,000 meters at the Stuttgart World Championships. In 1994 she was awarded the prestigious Jesse Owens Prize. She was the first and only Asian woman to win that prize. She won the gold medal in the women’s 5,000 meters and a silver medal in the 10,000 meters (31:02.58) at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996.

LIU Xiang (b.1983) 刘翔 is the most outstanding 110-meter hurdler in China. Liu participated in the world junior championships in 2000 and ranked fourth in the 110-meter hurdles. In 2002 he won a silver medal in Lausanne in the 110-meter hurdles at the IAAF Grand Prix. In 2003 he won a bronze medal in 110-meter hurdles at the IAAF World Championships in Paris. In 2004 at the Athens Olympic Games, Liu Xiang won the gold medal in the same event. This brilliant victory made him the first Chinese male athlete to earn a gold medal in a men’s track-and-field event at the Olympic Games. In 2006, at the IAAF Super Grand Prix in Lausanne, he set the men’s 110-meter hurdles world record at 12.88 seconds. Liu is the first Chinese athlete to achieve the “triple crown” of athletics: world record holder, world champion, and Olympic champion.

Source: Chang Shen, & Lu Zhouxiang. (2008). Athletics. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 28–31. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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