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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The Beijing Olympic games

Jean Auriac

Texte intégral

1August 2008

2Faster, higher and stronger. The Chinese society has completely taken to Coubertin’s motto. Far from the days of Peyrefitte’s Immobile Empire! Liu Xiang, the people’s hero, winner of the 110m hurdles at the last Athens Olympic Games and the first Chinese gold medallist in athletics, symbolises the success of sports in this country. Within twenty years, from winning five gold medals in Seoul in 1988, China went on to win 63 medals (32 gold medals) in the 28th Olympic Games in 2004, just behind the United States (35). China continuously improved their scores in various Championships and World Cups, from gaining a yearly average of 45 medals in the 1980s, to 92 in the 1990s, and 105 in the 2000s. However, the country’s sports situation cannot be put down to its recent success in international competitions.


3The most used modern Chinese expression attributed to “sport” (yundong/movement) refers to only a kinetic notion. We are far from the French etymology for sport, “the recreation of body and mind”. The definition of “sports” derived from the colleges of English gentry in the 19th century, aimed to link intellectual and physical education, is not far from its definition in the Chinese tradition. Even Confucius himself made archery part of his ideal curriculum. Tradition placed martial arts not far from the art of the brush, practised mainly by soldiers or scholars, like in our country in ancient times.

4However, sports remain largely dominated by developed countries. China, back in 1980 after 30 years of not participating, has won a total of 281 medals, 4 out of 5 of which were after 1988, compared to the United States’ record of 2,413, who were their “rival to beat”. In the history of the Olympic Movement, these results were not proportionate to China’s population, which today is estimated at 1.3 billion. Nevertheless, if we compare these results to the 14 medals that were won by India, the relationship between sport and development level seems more than justified.

5Chinese sport, reflective of the divides of a society, is a two-tiered system. On the one side, there are Olympic and world champions who are over-vitamin-dosed sporting icons and the living proof of China’s post-Deng Xiaoping’s success internationally and domestically. They are the pride of a nation, which thrives on the performances of this minority, as much as the discovery of space was for the West; a revenge on the West for having long dominated China. On the other hand, there is a worrying lack of physical exercise among its population, which sometimes borders on a public health issue (child obesity).

6The Chinese Sports Commission conducted two national surveys on “mass practice” in 1996 and 2001. The 2008 survey, which will be published at the end of the year, despite showing a slight increase, does not present any significant changes. It illustrates that in 2001, only 35% of the population over the age of sixteen participated in any physical or sporting activity (a game of table tennis, going for walks, playing a few rounds of basketball), with this being at least once a year.

7The increase of 0.65% compared to that in 1996, taking into account the natural growth of the population during the same period by 6%, shows that there is a clear decline; a worrying fact for the authorities. Non-professional sports were victims of economic restructuring, just like the health and education sectors and the Chinese national health insurance. Whether employees miss their days of compulsory exercise under the loud speakers of the Maoist era, remains to be seen.

8In 2001, the population over 16 years old participating in any regular physical or sporting activity was 18.3%, with a difference of nearly 3% more for men than for women, compared to France’s 71%. If we take this 18.3% to mean non-professionals, who, within this group, have participated in at least four competitions throughout the year (23.2% in 2000), we end up with a ratio of 4.5% of the population practising a competitive sport. The eight most popular activities participated in by non-professionals are (in order) walking and running, badminton, swimming, football, basketball, volleyball and table tennis.

9To paint a picture closer to reality, it has to be said that cycling is still one of the most developed means of transport in China; it has been left out of the figures due to the fact it is seen as a necessity and not as a pastime. Recreational activities taken up by senior citizens in parks across China have, however, been included into the figures. Unabashed and engaged in their morning exercises, they often enjoy rhythmic traditional walks accompanied by a fan, tambourine or cymbals.

10If we present the practice of leisurely or non-professional sports in a graph, there would be a distinct “U-shaped curve”, which sees young people and senior citizens coming out on top. Only a small proportion of working adults, in their “struggle for life”, find the time to exercise. The group including “scientific and academic professionals” (34.3%) is the only group to show better results, compared to 88% of graduates in France.

11So why do so little people exercise?

12The reasons put forward by the survey conducted in 2001 were the following:

  • Up to 53.8% said that they did not “have time”: working hard to provide for the family, paying for the children’s studies, helping them through life, having to save, due to the lack of retirement schemes;
  • up to 34.9% explained that it was due to “the [utter] lack of sporting facilities and equipment”. Although China has around 20,000 sports facilities (stadiums, gymnasiums, etc.) today, 71% of these activities are practiced in non-designated public places including “parks, roads, riversides and canals”; not forgetting the issue of smog in big cities, hindering the practice of outdoor sports;
  • up to 30.2% said it was due to their “lack of interest”. It is understandable that the hundreds of millions of farmers or migrants, who, after their day’s work, cannot bear the thought of “participating in physical exercise again”.

13The same can be said for the current urbanisation movement, which sees today’s generation being spared from the fieldwork of their elders and who feel that this is already progress.

14The answers given by the questionnaire, however, overshadow many other reasons. One in particular is the lack of community associations, which have not received much support and which explains the consequent reluctance to participate in sporting activities.

15Finally, the survey revealed, as was expected, that the practice of sports was being increasingly linked to how much one earned. Today’s new generation shows a greater interest in keeping fit (wasn’t Miss World in 2007 Chinese?) and spending more money on sports. There is an increasing number of people going to gyms across China. However, not everyone can join. In Beijing, joining a private gym can cost between 1,000 and 5,000 yuan per year (10 yuan = 1 euro), which is a lot, considering that a monthly salary is 1,800 yuan. This is nothing compared to golf, which is in a different category altogether and through which one’s importance can be seen.

16Children and teenagers are spared from not practising sport as they have two to three hours of PE (physical education) lessons a week, but they do not necessarily have the same experience as if they belonged to a sports club. Their fun coloured uniform covers up the fierce academic rivalry among students. Parents prefer spending time on Sundays tutoring maths to their children than on leisure activities. In cities at the weekend, outsiders can pay to use school and university facilities. The cost of reserving a tennis court for an hour in Beijing is 150 yuan, and an indoor court (the average temperature being -5° C in January and 35° C in July in Beijing) would cost 60 yuan, the same price for reserving a football pitch.

17“Sports culture” is becoming more popular. Viewers enjoy watching televised matches. The infamous Chinese giant, Yao Ming, whose height is 2.23m and who plays in the American NBA championship, has turned many Chinese teenagers into specialists of American basketball. Additionally, the people of Shanghai, disappointed by the level of football and corruption of their national teams, were as interested in the last football European Cup as the Europeans themselves. In China, to say that one is French is usually followed by admiring compliments for Dji-da-nei (Zidane). The sports industry has also experienced strong growth, from clothes to sports materials, even Loto (caipiao). It is almost sure that these Games will arouse the public’s appetite for sport.

18Competitive Chinese sports are weakened by non-professional sports. They are organised mainly by the state. The National Commission (Ministry) has the means to meet the demands and pride of the nation. It oversees the work of provincial commissions in charge of organising sporting activities on a more local scale. A small number of competitions are officially organised every year and around 40,000 competitions have taken place across China within the last few years, bringing together only 12 million participants in 2006, which is equal to less than 1% of the entire population. According to the latest figures, which date back to two years ago, there were only a total of 50,000 graduates in China, 5,000 of whom graduated from intensive training centres. The most popular sports were athletics, football and shooting. 20,000 of these graduates participate in elite sports, which are well paid. The majority of them are selected when they are young, not because they are particularly interested sport, but for their physical profile, and are trained within a network of 4,000 sports schools. Raised to achieve results, their athletic life span is relatively short. At least 550 (200 more than in Athens) of them will have to take part in competitions and perhaps excel in other disciplines such as shooting, diving, table tennis, badminton, weightlifting, gymnastics and judo.

19The Chinese “State sport”, however, is a subject that has long been talked about that it is no longer worth delving into. In addition, China is far from being the only country to use exaggerated means for its practice of sport and as a consequence, such drifts from sport and the Olympic games in particular, have become ambiguous.

And the Games!

20The Beijing Olympic Games will be no different to previous host cities, if anything, a few notches higher. The city has been backed by large investments, which have kept it in line with international standards, as it did not get off to a good start.

21Regarding the only sport investment plan, even if we do not have the official figures, we know that funding it was costly. In addition to the national stadium, nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest”, for ceremonies and the extraordinary modern Aquatic Centre, whose photos have been seen by all, nine other sports centres were also built in the capital (on university campuses in most cases), and ten others were completely renovated for the occasion. That is not all. Eight sports facilities were built, not to mention the Olympic Village and technical buildings. Finally, six stadiums, or new sports grounds in other cities that would host other competitions at the same time (football in Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenyang; aquatic sports in Qingdao, etc.), were added to the list.

22Scientific studies alone conducted on the Games amounted to 300 million euros. These included inventing a torch resistant to the lack of oxygen even at the peak of Everest or, more seriously, giving these Games an ecological image (use of renewable energy sources, protection of air quality), and even studies prior to the constructions.

23Investments were the price to pay to hold the Games in China. However, this is without taking into account the substantial infrastructure investments to turn Beijing into a capital city that could be “heralded” (hecai) as an emblem of (a new) superpower. The China Central Television building shaped like a pair of “trousers”, defying the laws of physics, or even the new national theatre designed by Paul Andreu in the heart of the city, are symbols of its superpower. For a few years now, glass towers of more than thirty stories high have dominated the city, proving that Beijing has entered the third millennium.

24In the transport sector, which has suffered heavy delays, there were considerable investments in the construction of the new airport, highways leading to it, its suspended link to the city centre, several underground lines, ring roads, high-speed rail lines from Beijing to Tianjin and railway stations, etc.

25The city underwent a total face-lift. The public road system was thoroughly renovated. Roads were re-cemented, pavements were repaved, there were new crossings for disabled people (the Paralympics Games must not be forgotten), fittings and fixtures installed in streets were replaced, power lines were planted, homes in Beijing were systematically renovated. The historical city centre was subjected to refurbishments; old monuments were all restored, yellow roofs were newly varnished and walls painted bright red. Roads were lined with ingenious machines for the bodybuilding culture across the entire city.

26The highlight was undoubtedly the city’s remarkable effort to create green spaces: trees were planted across the city; squares, green alleys and botanical parks were created; flowerbeds could be seen everywhere. It would have been difficult to take the prize for the most flower-decorated city in the world away from Beijing. Furthermore, there was grass everywhere, despite being close to the Gobi Desert! A large canal bringing water from the Yangtze River to Beijing was dug for hundreds of miles and has been providing water to the thirsty city for the past nine years, in the absence of rain. It now fills the moats, canals and ponds of the capital.

27Finally, there were all those unaccounted costs that were difficult to ignore. Thus, in the struggle against pollution and to make the air breathable in Beijing for years now, it was necessary to relocate polluting businesses, to have new buses and discard tens of thousands of taxis, which no longer conformed to European standards. To conclude, all pollution-emitting factories within a several hundred-kilometre radius of the capital were to be closed during August and September for the Games to be enjoyed under a serene sky.

28The political authorities were extremely concerned with disorder. The Agence Chine Nouvelle had announced (on 22th June 2008) that “the police’s anti-terrorist force and an army of nearly 100,000 commandos were put under maximum stay alert to counteract any terrorist attack before and during the Games. […] Security forces of 150,000 men were to be deployed in the capital and also volunteers ensuring the patrol of more than 290,000 people”, i. e. a total of 540,000 men for 500,000 expected foreign visitors.

29China, a country based on centralism like no other, has undoubtedly delved deeply into its GNP to invite the world to its banquet, while it holds its breath. A few months ago people would have expressed an overwhelming optimism for the glamour of the announced festivities, but recent events regarding the Olympic flame or even the earthquake in Sichuan have made them take a step back. “The Games are not really important” could sometimes be heard.

30These Olympic games, with their meticulous organisation, made possible by the country’s “excessiveness” in which the Games are bathed and the regime that asked for them to be bathed – with such a desire for political recognition and economic expansion – have a magnifying glass effect on the current globalisation process. China believes that its relationship with the West is based on their respective powers and its challenge is to outdo others. The fact that the West criticised China, illustrates this ongoing power struggle.

31It does not matter if sport itself only wins the bronze medal! It is not China’s fault that sport has been knocked off its top place, but rather because of its own economic and political drifts. That is not the issue. Sportsmen and women around the world have chosen to go to this get-together. Let’s hope that everything will run smoothly and that it will be a success for the vast majority of the Chinese population who have dreamt of it and who wish it to be a celebration… their celebration.

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