FAN Hong 凡红

Two thousand years ago, QU Yuan 屈原 (340–278 BCE), a famous Chinese poet, wrote, “The road toward the destination is very long. I will search heaven and earth to get there.” This quotation aptly describes the journey China undertook to bring the Olympic Games to Beijing. The history of China’s participation in the Olympic Games can be divided into three periods: the Qing dynasty 清 (before 1911), the Republic (1911–1949), and the People’s Republic (1949–present).

Long before the Olympic Movement spread to China, a few Western sports existed there. Some were military exercises imported from Europe and the United States, which were in accord with the Chinese martial spirit and could be used to support the traditional Chinese ideal of a unified regime known as the ‘‘Central Kingdom” Zhongguo 中国. This regime, the Qing Dynasty, had been deteriorating gradually in authority since the end of the eighteenth century, but still dominated the nation culturally as well as militarily. In addition, a number of Western sports that are now contested at the Olympics came to China in the nineteenth century, usually due to educators at missionary schools and universities, or under the auspices of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The British brought modern soccer to to Shanghai in 1856. Basketball, which originated in 1891 at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, arrived in China only four years later.

The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, thanks to the work of Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin had traveled widely in England and the United States to learn about sport and physical education in private and public schools as well as in colleges and universities and then convened a conference in Paris to discuss the revival of the ancient Olympic Games. The first modern Games were a huge success, with over 60,000 people attending in the restored grand marble stadium at Olympia, Greece. Coubertin told the world that he had revived the Games with these goals: 1) as a cornerstone for health and cultural progress; 2) for education and character building; 3) for international understanding and peace; 4) for equal opportunity; 5) for fair and equal competition; 6) for cultural expression; 7) for beauty and excellence; and 8) for independence of sport as an instrument of social reform, rather than government legislation.

Gold-Medal Fever

For many nations, including the United States and China, the desire for Olympic gold medals is based on political objectives. During the Cold War, the politicization of sport reflected the confrontation between Communism and capitalism. After the Cold War, it has reflected the confrontation between nation-states. Governments also use sport as a call to unity, and sometimes to distract attention from social problems such as corruption and unemployment.

Among ordinary Chinese people, the Olympic gold-medal fever springs from feelings unique to China: a sense of great pride and also crushing inferiority. Chinese people cherish the knowledge that China was once the cultural center of the world and are nostalgic for the glorious prosperity of the Tang dynasty (618–907 ce). They are pained by the more recent history of humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan, and are united today in a desire to restore national prestige and gain international recognition.

The Games are simultaneously a ritual of international cohesion and a battlefield on which to beat economically advanced nations and restore China’s confidence. The Chinese, who suffered significantly in the conflicts of the twentieth century, long to triumph in the Olympic Games. It was less than twenty-five years ago when, in 1984, China reemerged on the Olympic stage after an absence of thirty-two years. A poor nation, it nonetheless won fifteen gold medals, and came in fourth in total gold medals. The nation’s success excited the entire Chinese population. “Break through Asia and Charge the World” became both a slogan and a dream for the Chinese.

It is generally agreed that when the French envoy forwarded an invitation to the Chinese government to participate in the first modern Olympic Games, officials showed no interest in taking part. In 1904, when the Third Olympic Games took place in St. Louis, the Chinese media began to report it. In 1907, before the Fourth Olympics took place in London, a few Chinese educators suggested that China should participate in the games. However, there was no response from the Qing government. There was no other impetus sufficient to take China into international sporting competition. But the notion of such an event clearly intrigued some outward-looking Chinese educators.

The Qing dynasty, which had ruled China since 1644, was overthrown in the Republican revolution of 1911. During that year the YMCAs of the Philippines, China, and Japan proposed that an Asian Olympic Games among Asian countries be held every two years. In 1913 the first Asian Olympic Games took place in Manila, Philippines. It was an imitation of the Olympic Games including all the regulations, rules, ceremonies, and even the use of the English language. It was called the Far Eastern Olympiad. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) welcomed the games but suggested that the word Olympiad should not be used in the future. Therefore, in 1915 when the games took place in Shanghai, the name was changed to “Far Eastern Championship Games” (FECG). The IOC sent a telegram of congratulations to the games.

The relationship between the IOC and China grew. In 1922 the IOC invited WANG Zhenting 王正廷 (1882–1961), former Chinese foreign minister and architect of the FECG, to be the first member of the IOC from China. In 1939 KUNG Xiang-xi 孔祥熙 (1880–1967), minister of finance, and in 1947 DONG Shouyi 董守义 (1895–1978), general secretary of the China Athletic Association, became members of the IOC successively.

China Enters the Olympics

In 1928, when the Ninth Olympic Games took place in Amsterdam, China sent one observer, SONG Ruhai. Then, in 1932 China participated in the Tenth Olympics in Los Angeles by sending a single athlete, LIU Changchun 刘长春, a sprinter and national champion, and his coach to the games. After twenty-five days at sea, when Liu finally arrived in Los Angeles, he was too exhausted to perform well and was eliminated in the heats. Four years later, China sent its first substantial contingent: 141 Chinese athletes traveled to Berlin to compete in the Eleventh Olympic Games. They did not win a medal, but after World War II, when the Games resumed in London in 1948, China sent forty athletes. There was still no medal to take home, in the last of the Games before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of MAO Zedong 毛泽东, defeated the Nationalists (Kuomintang) led by CHIANG Kai-shek 蔣介石, took over China, and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Nationalists fled to Taiwan. Both Communists and Nationalists claimed that they were the legitimate government of China. Thus began the era of the “two Chinas “ in political and sports history.

The Communists lost no time in recognizing the importance of the Olympic Games as an international stage on which China’s identity could be asserted. In 1952, when the Fifteenth Olympic Games took place in Helsinki, the IOC invited both Beijing and Taiwan to participate. Taiwan claimed that it could not “compete with Communist bandits on the same sports field” and withdrew from the games in protest.

China is said to have received the invitation from the IOC just one day before the opening ceremony. They managed, nonetheless, to send a delegation of forty to Helsinki one week later to raise the national flag at the Olympic Village and watch the last few events.

Beijing prepared to participate in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. However, when it was informed that Taiwan would attend, Beijing withdrew, despite the fact that the qualifying events had taken place and more than fourteen hundred Chinese athletes from twenty-seven provinces, cities, and autonomous regions had attended the preparatory competitions in China, and ninety-two athletes had been selected for the PRC sports delegation and were waiting to go to the Olympics. Instead, Taiwan participated.

Two years later, in August 1958, disappointed with the IOC’s ambiguous attitude toward the “two Chinas,” the PRC withdrew its membership from the IOC. Therefore, between 1958 and 1980, Taiwan represented China at six Olympics.

The situation started to change in the 1970s. In 1972 Lord Killanin became the new president of the IOC. He felt that the IOC should not continue to ignore Red China and exclude -one-fourth of the world’s population from the Olympic Movement and the games. He visited Beijing in 1977. The famous “Olympic formula” was produced in 1979 and China renewed its membership in the IOC. Taiwan, according to the Olympic formula, would change the name of its Olympic committee from the “Chinese Olympic Committee” to “Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee” and change the name of its team from the “Chinese Olympic Team” to “China Taipei.” In this way both Beijing and Taiwan would be able to participate in the Olympics.

Table 1: China’s Participation in the Summer Olympics 1984–2004

Games Year Host city Gold
Gold medal
23 1984 Los Angeles 15 8 9 32 4
24 1988 Seoul 5 11 12 28 7
25 1992 Barcelona 16 22 16 54 4
26 1996 Atlanta 16 22 12 50 4
27 2000 Sydney 28 16 15 59 3
28 2004 Athens 32 17 14 63 3

In 1984 at Los Angeles, the PRC reemerged at the Olympics after an absence of thirty-two years. It won fifteen gold medals and finished fourth in the gold medal tally. Although the good showing in Los Angeles was partly attributed to the absence of the Soviet Union and the Democratic Republic of Germany, it excited the Chinese—from government officials to ordinary citizens. “Develop elite sport and make China a superpower in the world” became both a slogan and dream for the Chinese.

However, for the Chinese the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, were a nightmare. When two sport superpowers, the Soviet Union and the Democratic Republic of Germany, returned to the Olympics, China’s gold medal tally shrank to five. China had slipped from fourth to eleventh in gold medals.

In 1992 China fought back at the Barcelona Olympics. Although the Soviet Union had broken up into several countries, it still took part as a unit under the name of the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (CIS). The two Germanys had reunited, and the country was even more powerful than before. Nevertheless, China won sixteen gold medals and returned to fourth place in the gold medal count.

In Atlanta in 1996, the Chinese again won sixteen gold medals and remained fourth on the gold medal count. But in Sydney in 2000, China achieved a historical breakthrough. It increased its gold medal count to twenty-eight and finished third.

The IOC and the “Two China Question”

With the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communists over the Nationalist followers of Chiang Kai-shek in China’s drawn-out civil war of the 1930s and 1940s, still another vexing problem presented itself. Which was the real China in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)? Mainland Communists? Or Nationalists who had retreated to Formosa, an island off China’s coast that eventually became known as Taiwan? Because the prewar national Chinese Olympic Committee had been in the hands of the Nationalists, the IOC recognized Taiwan, which in turn insisted upon being called the Republic of China. In a series of arguments and angry rebuffs, the People’s Republic failed to move the IOC toward their point of view: the argument that with a population fifty times that of Taiwan, indeed a population figure that represented nearly one-third of the world’s total numbers, it was the real China; Taiwan was but an obscure offshore province. Stubbornly, the PRC remained aloof from the Olympics until changes in political times prompted their appearance at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.”

Robert Barney

In Athens in 2004, the Chinese competed in 203 events and won thirty-two gold, seventeen silver, and fourteen bronze medals. Among thirty-two gold medals, four were won in events traditionally dominated by Western athletes: track and field, swimming, rowing, and canoeing. With sixty-three medals in total, China finished third in the medal rankings after the United States and Russia. With thirty-two gold medals China beat the Russians and finished second to the United States. Furthermore, Chinese athletes established six world records, and they broke Olympic records twenty-one times.

After their triumph in Athens, the Cable News Network (CNN) commented: “In the six Olympic Games they have competed in, China has moved up the medal tally in world record time.” China has become one of the three superpowers, with the United States and Russia, in the Summer Olympics.

The moment that the Athens Olympics ended the world media turned its attention to Beijing, home of the 2008 Olympics, and the next gold medal confrontation between China and the United States.

Source: FAN Hong. (2008). China in the Olympic Games. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 9–13. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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