In 1908, as London prepared to host the 4th Olympic Games, the Shanghai-based newspaper Shun Pao posed three questions to their readers: When would China send its first delegation of athletes to the Olympics? When would China win its first gold medal? And when would China itself host the Olympic Games?
Impoverished and weak, China in those days was known as the “sick man of Asia.” Many Chinese patriots looked to sports as an opportunity for the country to win recognition on the international stage. Since then, athletics has played a powerful, symbolic role in China. We lionize those who win glory for our country in sporting competitions, viewing them as the apotheosis of both the strength of the Chinese people and the progress of the Chinese nation.
In 1959, the table tennis player Rong Guotuan took home China’s first world championship, and in 1984 pistol shooter Xu Haifeng won the country’s first Olympic gold medal. That same decade saw the Chinese women’s volleyball team win five consecutive world titles. Later, basketball star Yao Ming and tennis ace Li Na joined Rong and Xu in the ranks of Chinese sporting idols. When the country finally hosted the Games on its home turf in 2008, it won more gold medals than any of its rivals.
Bizarrely, though, while China’s superstar athletes are feted as heroes, ordinary athletes often face discrimination. Many are embarrassed even to admit that they play sports for a living, and work hard so they’ll be able to leave the sports world behind them.
This attitude can be seen most clearly in the way Chinese schools undervalue physical education (PE) classes. Educators marginalize both the classes and those who teach them professionally, and it is common for instructors of Chinese, math, or foreign languages to use time set aside for PE classes to give their students more instruction in their own subjects.
As a teacher at a sports university, I have personally witnessed countless acts of discrimination. When one of my classmates heard that I was going to teach at the Shanghai University of Sport in 2012, he sighed mockingly: “You’re teaching PE now?” In his view, my job teaching and researching at a sports university was a sign of downward social mobility, and not something of any educational value.
Students are not immune from these prejudices either. In the summer of 2014, a student studying for her master’s in tennis education told me how during an interview at a middle school, one of the questions she had to answer was, “How do you view the traditional saying that Chinese athletes are ‘simple of mind, robust of body’?” This commonly used idiom reveals much about society’s depiction of athletes as dim-witted muscle-heads who are too dumb for real academics.
Confucian tradition tends to value intellectual achievements over physical ones. In the words of the Song-era scholar Wang Zhu, “All things are mean; only learning is elevated.” This ingrained cultural attitude is the reason Chinese athletes are often unwilling to admit what they do for a living, and why many harbor dreams of switching to a more highly regarded industry.
The China Sport Science Society, the country’s largest athletics association, identified the significant number of elementary and middle school PE teachers leaving their positions as a serious problem as early as 1990. In one outer suburb of Beijing, a study showed that 43 percent of PE teachers had left their position or changed fields. Even today, parents who oppose the appointment of PE instructors as their children’s homeroom teachers on the grounds that their grades will suffer.
I know two athletes who studied abroad — in Japan and Germany, respectively — before returning to China. Of the two, one is unwilling to work at a sports university in any capacity, and is set on transferring to a comprehensive university to work as a professor in a non-sports-related field. The other, meanwhile, has eschewed teaching to become an administrator at his sports university, and expresses disgust for the actual work of teaching sports, describing it as “vulgar,” and as something that will cause him to lose face. Both men have seized on career changes as a way to improve their social status.
In Confucian culture, those who hold positions as professors in a field other than physical education belong to the ranks of “scholars,” a title imbued with connotations of superiority. Many teachers at sports academies who earn doctorates in fields unrelated to sports prefer to highlight these qualifications on their business cards and publications in order to avoid being stigmatized as mere athletes. Still more seek to gain entry into national writers’ or calligraphers’ organizations, flaunting their memberships to show that they are defined by more than just sports.
Former athletes who manage to become arts and literature professionals are objects of envy within sporting circles. Yang Zaichun, the head of Beijing Sport University’s publishing house, was once a highly talented triple jump specialist. But he has freely admitted that he studied calligraphy only because he wanted to show students at prestigious neighboring schools — namely Peking and Tsinghua universities — that athletes could be cultured, too.
In Chinese popular culture, there is a dichotomy between the rare athletes who earn a name for themselves and are richly rewarded for it, and the vast majority of athletes who spend hardly any time in the limelight. The former are able to evade the kind of discrimination that athletes traditionally face, while the latter remain trapped on the lower rungs of society, the objects of ridicule among their peers.
Too often, Chinese people tend to see sports as pointless unless there’s a gold medal to show for such commitment. Sports investment at the national level is thus geared toward competitive events, where there is honor to be won. Meanwhile, China’s per-capita athletic facilities remain inadequate, and the physical health of today’s young people is in decline. Ordinary athletes suffer from a lack of resources and opportunities to showcase their talents.
There are signs that things are beginning to change for the better, however. As China’s middle class grows in size, it has become fashionable to run marathons, work out, and go to the gym. Since the Beijing Olympics, the overemphasis on winning has given way to a stronger focus on enjoyment and sportsmanship. The more people embrace and participate in athletic activities, the more China’s athletes will be able to shake off their undeserved reputation as poorly educated also-rans.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A girl practices gymnastics at the Shanghai Yangpu Youth Amateur Athletic School in Shanghai, March 23, 2016. Aly Song/Reuters/VCG)