FAN Hong

In August 1908, the fourth modern Olympic Games took place in London, and it was there — in the city that will host the 2012 Games — that the first steps were taken to set China on the path to Olympic glory. Even though China was not yet a member of the International Olympic Committee and Chinese athletes did not compete, an influential Chinese educator ZHANG Boling 张伯苓, the principal of Nankai University 南开大学, was in London, on his way to visit several schools and universities in Britain. He was impressed by the principle of the Olympics — fair play 公平竞争. He returned to China in October and introduced the idea — and ideal — of the Olympic Games to his students in Tianjin 天津.

After Zhang’s introduction, students of Nankai University held a seminar that would become famous for asking the “Three Questions about the Olympics.” These questions were: When would China send its first athlete to participate in the Olympic Games? When would Chinese athletes win their first gold medal at the Olympic Games? When would the Olympic Games be held in China?

It took the Chinese twenty-four years to answer the first question. In 1932 China sent LIU Changchun 刘长春, a sprinter, to participate in the Olympics in Los Angeles. He was eliminated in the earliest of the preliminary heats. It was another seventy-six years before the second question was answered. On 29 July 1984, sharpshooter XU Haifeng 许海峰 won China’s first gold medal, in another Los Angeles Olympics. And it took a full century to provide an answer to the final question — “When would the Olympic Games be held in China?” — as the Games at last came to China.

Chinese people will never forget the moment on 13 July 2001 in Moscow when Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee, announced that Beijing would host the Twenty-ninth Olympic Games in 2008. A century after the “Three Questions” were asked, China’s Olympic dream has finally come true. The Games of 2008 not only provide billions of Chinese with a chance to witness China’s success in sports firsthand, but also to participate in an event that marks a crucial milestone on China’s road to modernization. Hosting the Olympic Games is a symbol of China’s “linking up with international standards” 与世界接轨 — the biggest event in China since the Communist revolution of 1949.

Is It Not a Great Joy to Have Friends Coming From Afar?

This well-known question — answered in the affirmative, naturally — comes from the Analects of Confucius (551–479 bce), written by the philosopher and moralist who has had great intellectual and cultural influence. While his ideas were dismissed during the early decades of the Communist period, today Confucius Institutes supported by the Chinese government, similar to the UK’s British Council, have been established at universities around the world to encourage learning about Chinese language and culture. The Chinese are known for their hospitality and for their belief in the importance of building personal relationships. The chance for the Chinese nation to welcome the world makes the 2008 Olympic Games of unprecedented importance.

The Meaning of the Olympic Dream

Acclaimed Chinese filmmaker ZHANG Yimou 张艺谋 — the director of the lavish opening and closing ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — spoke for the nation when he said: “It is not just an opening ceremony for the Olympics — it is a way of showing China to the world and what is happening today.”

Some may wonder why the Olympics mean so much to the Chinese, but if we look at the history of the last two centuries it is easy to understand. China, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, cherishes the memory of its long supremacy at the center of the world and the knowledge that China has contributed greatly to global scholarship, philosophy, and scientific innovation. In consequence, the Chinese people feel abiding pain and deep chagrin over what can only be described as repeated humiliations at the hands of the Western and Eastern imperialist powers in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Modern Chinese history is one of struggle and striving to restore national pride. Since the late twentieth century, China, the once “sleeping giant,” has amazed the world by the pace of its economic growth and social change. Determined to catch up with the developed countries, it has taken every possible opportunity to restore the nation’s confidence and achieve international recognition in many areas.
The Olympic Games, the largest sport event and one of the biggest social and corporate enterprises in the world, has become a stage upon which China can achieve some of its political, social, and economic objectives. Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, sport has been a powerful tool, and in the Maoist era between 1949 and 1976, sport was for China, as well as other nations, right at the center of politics and diplomacy — a way to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over capitalism.

Since the 1980s China’s sporting success has been regarded not only as evidence of ideological superiority and economic prosperity, but also a powerful symbol of national revival. The government and most of the Chinese people believed that Chinese athletes’ excellent performances on the Olympic stage would be the best proof of China’s great achievements in economic reform and modernization. Brilliant victories achieved by Chinese athletes at the Olympics not only show China’s ability to stand proudly and independently among the other nations of the world, but will also strengthen the national spirit and confident vision of its citizens. To most Chinese people, the Olympic Games is where they can witness the glory of China, feel proud of being Chinese, and experience unity as a great nation.

China’s Influence on the Olympics

More so than other host countries, China’s culture and character has deeply influenced the 2008 Games. The Chinese have defined the Beijing Games as “humanistic Olympics” 人文奥运, “green Olympics” 绿色奥运, and “technological Olympics” 高科技奥运. These core concepts derive from shared international principles, of course, but have also been influenced by Chinese cultural understandings about social interaction, environmental protection, and modernization.

The perception of some Western people and the Western media of what the Games should bring about is likely to be different from what the majority of ordinary Chinese people might hope for. For the Chinese, especially the 94 percent of Beijing citizens who voted to support the Games, the Olympics provide the best opportunity to show the world that the identity of the Chinese culture and people is uniquely different. The Games provide the opportunity to invest in programs to control air and water pollution, while raising awareness of environmental issues. They provide job opportunities for many people, and will contribute to raising living standards. At the same time, neighborhood streets have become cleaner and public transportation has improved. New construction and upgrades to the city’s infrastructure will help make Beijing a first-class world city after the Games. “One World, One Dream” 同一世界, 同一梦想 is not just a slogan but the desire and wish of Chinese people.

There is no doubt that the Chinese flag and the American flag will be raised side by side at the Games. However, China’s determination goes beyond just winning Olympic gold. What next? Overtaking the United States economically by 2039 and becoming the largest economic power in the world, as some economists predict? Whether or not that occurs, the Beijing Olympic Games is seen as a milestone in China’s progress toward becoming a leading economic and political power in the twenty-first century.

Source: Fan Hong. (2008). China’s Olypmic dream. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. ix–x. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.