LUO Shiming 罗时铭 and CAO Shouhe 曹守和

The National Games of the People’s Republic of China have been regarded as mini-Olympic Games in China. Take the recent National Games, which took place in 2005, as an example. It had almost ten thousand elite athletes competing in 357 events in thirty-two sports, most of which are Olympic events, following the rules and regulations used in the Olympics. In addition, all the Olympic rituals were practiced at the games: the torch relay, lighting of the flame, logo, mascot, athlete’s oath, playing of the games and national anthems, raising of the games and the national flags, and opening and closing ceremonies. The National Games, the largest and highest level comprehensive sports event in China, have prepared Chinese athletes for international competitions and have played an important role in China’s achievements in international sports. Between the PRC’s First National Games in 1959 and the Tenth National Games in 2005, Chinese athletes have won 1,899 world titles (world cups, world championships) and Olympic medals. The National Games, like the Olympics, demonstrate China’s determination to forge boldly ahead, economically and politically, in the twenty-first century.

Early Competitions

Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the first sports meet was held in 1890, during the Qing dynasty, in Shanghai, when St. John’s College hosted a track-and-field meet. St. John’s College was a U.S. missionary college in Shanghai and was among the first missionary schools and colleges to promote modern sports in China. Influenced by such missionary schools, state-run schools also began to organize sports competitions at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thereafter, collegiate sports competitions took place in major Chinese cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. It was from these beginnings that a national sports meet developed.

In 1910, at the eve of the birth of the Republic of China (in 1911), the Shanghai YMCA initiated the first of an earlier series of National Games and held them in Nanjing. One hundred and forty athletes from North and South China, Shanghai, Wuning, Nanjing, and Suzhou took part in track and field, soccer, basketball, and tennis. After the establishment of the republic, six National Games were held at irregular intervals: Beijing, 1914; Wuchang, 1924; Hangzhou, 1930; Nanjing, 1933; Shanghai, 1935; and again in Shanghai, 1948.

Some of the games in this period served the function of selecting elite athletes for major international sports events and so were held before each of the Far Eastern Championship Games and the Berlin and London Olympic Games. They also promoted sports participation in Chinese society in general and in schools and universities in particular.

In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was established by the Chinese Communist Party. The new government continued to hold the National Games because they were a tool for social cohesion and national unity. Since 1959 the National Games have been held ten times. (See table 1.)

The games are generally organized and financed by the central and regional governments. Nevertheless, since the Sixth National Games in 1987, funding has come from government, sponsors, and advertisements.

Where the Athletes Come From

In China, almost every province has its own top sports. For example, there are many first-class badminton players in Hunan Province, and Hebei Province is famous for shooting. However, among all the provinces Liaoning Province has contributed most to the miraculous performance of Chinese elite athletes in the Olympic arena. Among the Olympic champions hailing from Liaoning are Yuan Hua (women’s judo, Sydney), WANG Junxia (women’s 10,000 meter, Atlanta), WANG Yifu (men’s shooting, Athens), WANG Nan (women’s table tennis, Sydney and Athens), and ZHANG Ning (women’s badminton, Athens.)

PRC’s First National Games, 1959

The First National Games took place in Beijing in 1959, after the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The games were intended to show the superiority of the socialist system, the high spirit of the Chinese people who were building a socialist country, and the progress that had been made in the past ten years. The Workers’ Stadium in Beijing was especially built and became one of the ten biggest buildings in China. More than seven thousand athletes from twenty-nine provinces and autonomous regions as well as from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) participated in thirty-six competition sports and six performance sports.

The Communist Party leaders attached great importance to the games, and Party leaders including Chairman MAO Zedong 毛泽东, President LIU Shaoqi 刘少奇, and Premier ZHOU Enlai 周恩来 attended the opening ceremony. HE Long 贺龙, vice premier and head of the national sports ministry, gave the opening speech. Zhou Enlai awarded a sports merit medal to those athletes who broke world records and had won world championships during the past ten years. Four world records, in swimming, parachuting, shooting, and aeromodeling, were broken at the games. Swimmer MU Xiangxiong 穆祥雄 was one of the games outstanding athletes.

Second National Games, 1965

In 1965 the Second National Games were also held in Beijing, six years after the first games. In that period Chinese sports had made significant progress. In 1961 the Twenty-sixth World Table Tennis Championships had been held in Beijing, and China had won the men’s team title for the first time. The training principle of assiduity and obedience became the guiding principle of the Chinese elite sports training system.

Almost six thousand athletes from twenty-nine provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions, and the PLA took part. There were twenty-two events, and martial arts was listed as a performance event for the first time. Nine world records were broken, in weight lifting, archery, parachuting, and shooting. Following the People’s Republic’s success at the Twenty-sixth World Table Tennis Championships in 1961, table tennis became the most popular sport event at the National Games.

Together, more than sixteen thousand people performed a set of group calisthenics entitled “Ode to Revolution” 革命赞歌 at the opening ceremony in front of Chairman Mao Zedong and other Communist Party leaders. This display indicated that the Chinese people were going all out to conquer difficulties and achieve success in all aspects of socialist society.

Table 1: National Games of China

National Games Year Place Athletes
First 1959 Beijing 7,707
Second 1965 Beijing 5,922
Third 1975 Beijing 12,497
Fourth 1979 Beijing 15,189
Fifth 1983 Shanghai 9,697
Sixth 1987 Guangdong Province 7,518
Seventh 1993 Beijing and Sichuan Province 10,510
Eighth 1997 Shanghai 7,647
Ninth 2001 Guangdong Province 12,314
Tenth 2005 Jiangsu Province 9,986

Third National Games, 1975

The Third National Games were held in Beijing in 1975. There were twenty-eight competition sport, and six performance sports in the games. A total of 12,497 athletes from thirty-one delegations from all over the country competed. Winter sports made their first appearance, and they included speed skating, ice hockey, figure skating, skiing, and short-distance speed skating, Three shooting world records were broken, and NI Zhiqin 倪志钦, competing in the high jump, became the star of the games. He broke the world record with a jump of 2.25 meters. Competitors from Guangdong, Beijing, and Shanghai won gold medals.

In April 1975, various events emphasized the growing importance of mass sports in China. With the approval of the State Council, the National Sports Ministry released the “Notice on the Nationwide Implementation of the National Physical Exercise Standards Regulations,” 国家体育锻炼标准 requiring physical education in school and in the army. At the games awards were presented to three hundred outstanding work units. At this time more than twenty-three thousand people performed the mass group calisthenics “Ode to the Red Flag” 红旗颂 at the opening ceremony.

Fourth National Games, 1979

In 1979 Beijing was again the site for the National Games. More than fifteen thousand athletes from thirty-one provinces (including Taiwan), municipalities, autonomous regions, and the PLA competed in thirty-two adult events and two junior events. The 25,000-li (1 li = 500 meters) New Long March torch relay appeared at the games for the first time. The touch relay route followed in the footsteps of the famous Long March of 1935, a critical event in Chinese Communist Party history. The torch relay symbolized that in the 1980s China, led by the Communist Party, would begin another Long March that would lead the country toward modernization in the new era. DENG Xiaoping 邓小平, the new leader of the Communist Party, attended the opening ceremony.

Athletes broke 5 world records and equaled 3 more. They also broke 8 Asian records and 102 national records. The games awarded the Medal of Honor in Sports to fifty-one athletes who had won world titles and to coaches who had made significant contributions since 1979.

LUAN Jujie 栾菊杰 became the women’s foil champion with victories in all five outings and was the outstanding female athlete at the games. Before the games in 1978, she had competed at the Youth Fencing Championships in Madrid, Spain, and had won the silver medal to become the first Asian woman to step into the upper echelons of world fencing. She was regarded as the top foil in Asia.

Fifth National Games, 1983

In 1983 the Fifth National Games were held in Shanghai, the first time that the games had been held outside Beijing. Guided by the policy of opening China up to the outside world and catching up with the Western countries, Chinese sports had begun to enter the international arena. China had renewed its membership in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1979 and it had participated in the Asian Games in 1982. China placed first in both the gold medal count and total medals won to establish its dominant position in the Asian sports world.

On 9 September 1983, President LI Xiannian 李先念 lit the torch for the Revitalizing China Torch Relay for the games. On 15 September, Deng Xiaoping provided the games with the instruction: “Improve the Competition Standard, Win Glory for the Country.” 提高水平, 为国争光 International Olympic Committee president Juan Samaranch attended the opening ceremony.

Almost nine thousand athletes from twenty-nine provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions, the PLA, and the Locomotive Sports League took part in twenty-five competition sports and one performance sport. Chinese athletes broke two world records and equaled three others. The best performance was that of ZHU Jianhua朱建华, who broke the high-jump world record at 2.38 meters. XU Haifeng 许海峰 won two silver medals in the men’s free pistol and air pistol competitions. He later became China’s first Olympic gold medalist at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984.

The first commercial donation, 113,600 Renminbi (RMB) (US$14,000), was made to these games, accounting for 1.16 percent of the total budget.

Sixth National Games, 1987

The Sixth National Games took place in Guangdong in 1987 as 7,518 athletes participated in forty-four competition sports and three performance sports. The Guangdong provincial sports commission and the organizing committee made these games an artistic and cultural event as well as a sports competition, as evidenced by opening show (“Soaring Aspirations” 凌云志) the China Olympic Philately Exhibition, and the adoption of the concept of a mascot and emblem for the games. The emblem represented the ambition and energy of the city (Guangzhou) in the forefront of reform and opening up of the new China.

Chinese athletes broke fifteen world records and equaled four others. They also broke forty-eight Asian and eighty-two national records. The Guangxi provincial delegation featured the games’ stars: HE Zhuoqiang 何灼强 who broke the snatch and total world records in the 50-kilogram class weight lifting, HE Yingqiang 何英强, who broke the snatch world record in the 56-kilogram class weight lifting, and LIN Ning 李宁, the “Prince of Gymnastics,” 体操王子 who made his last National Games appearance.

Statistical Snapshot of China

Capital Beijing
Government type Communist state
Area 9,596,960 sq km; slightly smaller than the US
Population 1,321,851,888 (July 2007 est.)
Population below poverty line 8% (2006 est.)
Infant mortality rate male: 20.1 deaths/1,000 live birthsfemale: 24.47 deaths/1,000 live births (2007 est.)
Life expectancy at birth male: 71.13 yearsfemale: 74.82 years (2007 est.)
Unemployment rate 4% (2007 est.)
Literacy male: 95.1%female: 86.5% (2000 census)
Internet users; % of population 162 million (2007); 12%
Languages Standard Chinese or Mandarin (Putonghua, based on the Beijing dialect), Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghaiese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka dialects, minority languages

Seventh National Games, 1993

The Seventh National Games were cohosted by Beijing and Sichuan Province in 1993. There were forty-three competition sports at the games. Twenty-six competitions took place in Beijing and fifteen in Sichuan. However, sailboat and sailboard events took place in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province. More than ten thousand athletes in forty-five delegations from all over China took part. The new Chinese president, JIANG Zemin 江泽民, opened the games.

The games saw 4 world records broken, 3 world records equaled, and 34 Asian records and 117 national records broken. The Liaoning middle-distance running team, “Ma’s Army” 马家军, (named for their coach, MA Junren’s 马俊仁, strict discipline) broke the 1,500-meter, 3,000-meter, and 10,000-meter world records. These games helped accelerate the momentum of China’s reform and opening up and also encouraged the Chinese people to support the bid for the Olympic Games. The Seventh National Games also took place shortly before the outcome of China’s Olympic bid was announced and were staged as a showcase of China’s capability to host the Olympic Games.

Eighth National Games, 1997

The Eighth National Games were held in Shanghai in 1997. These were the largest national sports event in China with 319 events in twenty-eight sports. More than seven thousand athletes representing forty-six delegations took part. Hong Kong sent a delegation for the first time after it had become a special administration region. President Jiang Zemin and IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch attended the opening ceremony. A cultural gala entitled the “Era of Progress” highlighted the commitment of the Chinese people to realize the goal of national rejuvenation through peaceful development with high spirit and passion in the new era.

Chinese athletes broke forty-one world records, equaled three other world records, and broke fifty-five Asian records and sixty-six national records. The stars were female athletes from Liaoning Province: JIANG Bo 姜波 broke the women’s 5,000-meter world record; in swimming CHEN Yan 陈妍 broke the women’s 400-meter individual medley relay world record. Female athletes also performed well in weight lifting. When the Eighth National Games were held, women’s weight lifting had already been listed in the program of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. At the Chinese National Games, women weight lifters broke most of the world records and even a few Chinese records! (Some Chinese records were higher than the world records, and some of the Chinese records were later recognized as world records.)

During these games seven sports cultural exhibitions were held. Sports cultural exhibitions on such a large scale were unprecedented. In particular the China Sports Art Exhibition was held at the Shanghai Museum. The 497 exhibits there were selected from ten thousand from all over China. IOC president Samaranch selected eighteen exhibits to be included in the collection of the IOC.

Ninth National Games, 2001

At the Ninth National Games, held in Guangdong in 2001, more than twelve thousand athletes from forty-five delegations participated in 30 major and 345 minor events. The Macao Special Administration Region was represented for the first time. President Jiang Zemin and new IOC president Jacques Rogge were present at the opening ceremony. Competition was on a world-class level in China’s strong Olympic sports, such as gymnastics, shooting, weight lifting, badminton, table tennis, and diving. Most impressive were the women weight lifters. They broke six world records. The shooters, including men’s and women’s air rifle, men’s and women’s 10-meter running target, and women’s sports pistol, also gave world-class performances.

Anti-doping enforcement at these games was the most stringent in the history of the National Games. A total of 1,349 tests were conducted, more than the total at the seventh and eighth games together. A blood test also was used for the first time. It exposed eight violators, who were penalized. One athlete who did not take the test on time was disqualified. Six athletes who had excessive amounts of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) in their bodies withdrew from the games.

Tenth National Games, 2005

The Tenth National Games were held in Jiangsu Province in 2005. This marked the first time in the history of the games that the hosting venue was determined by bidding. The sacred fire of the tenth games was composed of the Flame of Scientific Advancement, the Flame of Chinese Civilization, and the Flame of China’s Renaissance. The “Millions with But One Heart” 我们万众一心 torch relay further raised awareness of nationwide fitness. Almost ten thousand athletes competed in 357 events in thirty-two sports.

Unlike past National Games, the tenth games played a special role: a rehearsal for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. As China’s president HU Jintao 胡锦涛 stated: “I hope the preparation for the Olympic Games can be evaluated through this Games so that the preparation for the Olympic Games could be done better.” The setup of the events of the tenth games conformed with that of Olympic events. One sport and twelve events were added. Most athletes who had participated in the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 participated in the tenth games.

At these games China’s three traditional sports powers—Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong—did not dominate the events. The games saw a more even distribution of medals among eight other delegations, marking the overall improvement of the level of competitive sports in the country. Six world records were broken. LIU Xiang 刘翔 was the star of the games, partially because he had tied the world record in the men’s 110-meter hurdles at the Athens Olympics.

The National Games show the unity of China; they also are a window through which to view China’s economic and sporting progress and a training ground to prepare Chinese athletes for international competition.

Source: Luo Shiming, & Cao Shouhe. (2008). China’s National Games. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 19-25. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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