Every time a large-scale sporting event like the Olympics comes around, China’s national sports program invariably falls under the scrutiny of the Western media, whose depictions of the program often invoke Cold War-era rhetoric. They report that athletes who emerge from this communist factory, driven by blood and sweat, are typically no more than simple-minded, athletic robots; and consequently, it is often hinted that Chinese athletes are less civilized than their Western counterparts.
But what Western countries often fail to note is that there is no lack of criticism from the Chinese media and general public about this nationwide sports program. Many argue that these programs drain public funds and violate the spirit of fair competition by focusing on internationally uncompetitive sports for no other purpose than grabbing fistfuls of medals every four years.
The nationalized sports program was inspired by the Soviet model and first established in the 1950s, but didn’t gain much traction until after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. It is funded by taxpayer money which is then distributed by the government into various athletics programs.
In a recent interview, prominent Chinese sociologist Zheng Yefu told Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper that the best time to end the nationwide sports program would have been after Beijing Olympics. “We proved ourselves to the world with the 2008 Olympics. There was no longer a need to discuss past humiliations.” Zheng argued that the greatest purpose of the country’s athletics program was to gain the respect of foreign nations by winning competitions.
Interestingly, some of the earliest calls to reform the system actually came from within the state athletics program itself. Inspired by the success of the capitalist sports system as showcased by the Los Angeles Olympics, in 1984 China’s national sports commission published an article pushing for nationalized sports funds, typically funneled into large, state-run sporting complexes, to be shifted into marketable sports programs, like the NBA in the United States. But it would be another decade before China finally established its first professional soccer league.
However, would simply terminating the national sports program and adopting the marketable system of Western countries solve any and all problems facing Chinese athletics once and for all? Perhaps it would fix some, but there are two reasons it could ultimately end up being detrimental to China.
In her book “Beijing’s Games: What the Olympics Mean to China” Susan Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, points out an issue often lightly regarded by both Chinese and Western media: gender equality. Because men’s athletics are much more marketable, the marketization of athletics will result in far fewer competitive opportunities for women.
Susan Brownell’s concerns have been proved by history. Since the 1990s, Chinese men’s soccer and men’s basketball have taken after Western countries in establishing professional, marketized leagues, which are easily able to secure financial funding from sponsors. However, despite often much more successful track records at the international level, women’s leagues in China have been severely neglected by sponsors. The Chinese women’s soccer team has come under the scrutiny of the media recently. They are paid much less than the men’s soccer team, even though the women have performed much better at the international level.
Another argument against marketizing sports is that the current system promotes class mobility. Since the candidates for the program are selected purely based on athletic prowess and not social class, the program allows many children born into poorer families to better their situations.
The Western media often criticizes China’s national program for destroying the bodies and sanities of its athletes, but it actually allows many of them to enjoy a better life. Shang Chunsong, the captain of the women’s gymnastics team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was born to a destitute peasant family in the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, in central China’s Hunan province. Her brother suffers from a congenital eye disorder, and Shang has told reporters that she hopes that she can earn enough money from gymnastics to get treatment for him.
China is by no means the first country to use athletics as a means of class mobility. In the U.S., many NBA players come from poor backgrounds, as do many members of the national soccer team in France. To non-white athletes, the road to improving social status is narrow. And as rigorous as the training may be for sports like soccer and boxing, the rewards are considerably high.
Strangely, this side of the national athletics program is rarely acknowledged, even by Chinese sources. Not even during the Beijing “People’s Olympics” was this issue emphasized.
I think that simply stating China throws a ton of money at schools to churn out athletes is unfair, and I believe that one of Beijing Olympics’ greatest legacies was how it empowered ideological mobility among many Chinese. It showed many poorer Chinese that they had the potential to raise their class status, or at least gave them hope that they could.
As money flows into China, wealth classes become more pronounced, and social hierarchies become increasingly rigid. Besides college entrance exam and athletics, children of poor families lack other meaningful alternatives for improving their social status. If the national sports program were abolished, how would the poor be able to bear the heavy financial burden of training costs to become athletes?
A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone's sister publication, The Paper.
(Header image: Shang Chunsong competes in the women’s qualification round at the Rio Olympics, Brazil, July 8, 2016. Dylan Martinez/Reuters)