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Chinese sport system from a historic perspective

By Yutang Sports 24 Oct 2014

Chinese sport system needs transformation to be suitable for market development in China. The social and economic development in China had made the transformation necessary, which was just proved by the latest announcement of the new sports policy by Chinese State Council. The government built this current sports system some decades ago, when the economy was not as good and the country not as wealthy and strong, to serve the nation’s diplomatic and overall strategic goals. To understand the current system which is still quite the same old system designed decades ago, a look at the system in history would be helpful. 

Below, we present a section from Sport and Physical Education in China by Robin Jones and James (Jim) Riordan (2002). Their description offers a good insight into the Chinese sports system. The following texts are directly taken from the book with a few slight changes. 

For China, sport has traditionally been controlled by the state. Material and human resources may be therefore be concentrated on prioritized goals, like “sporting diplomacy” or Olympic performance far more easily than in a market economy. Sport in China, furthermore, has since 1949 reflected foreign policy and, on occasion, been blatantly utilized to effect foreign policy changes—as with the so-called ping-pong diplomacy in the 1970s. “This was a shortcut that China took to restore diplomatic relations with the USA” (Jiang 1992:7). As Dong Jinxia writes: 

“Sport is used to serve international diplomatic ends and to demonstrate superiority over capitalist systems. Sport is directed by state policies, decrees and plans. The policy of developing competitive sport was established in 1956 when the first Chinese athlete broke the world record in weightlifting. But until 1979 competitive sport was restricted to the domestic arena or international friendship tournaments because Chinese was isolated from international sport for two decades. Moreover, during then ten years of Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the competitive spirit was discouraged, even criticized; Chinese competitive sport was seriously hindered. However, with economic reforms in the 1980s a great change took place in every aspect of society … National sports policy was revised from ‘Friendship First, Competitive Second’, advocated by Mao Tse-tung, to an all-out quest for global recognition and status.” (Dong 1995:11)

The primary target in China’s sports policy since the early 1980s, therefore, has been to produce a winning formula in Olympic and world arenas. Chinese sports officials made no bones about the fact that “The highest goal of Chinese sport is success in the Olympic Games” (Wu 1990), or that “the all-important Olympic Games is the real yardstick for a nation’s actual strength in sport” (Xu 1990). 

But China was a “late starter”, making its Olympic appearance only in 1985, in Los Angeles after an absence of thirty-two years (since the 1952 Helsinki Olympics) during which time it had been prevented from taking part largely because of US opposition. Upon resuming its seat on the International Olympic Committee in 1979, its politicians sounded a clarion call of “March out of Asia and into the world!” (Xu 1990). Although China made little impact at the 1984 and 1988 Games, by 1992 it was beginning to show signs that “the tried and tested model of early selection and training, special sports schools and sports science was having an impact on results.” (Jones 1993). 

China spent US$52m on each gold medal won at the 1988 Seoul Olympics by contrast with the host country’s US$9m. Altogether China invested US$260m in success at the Seoul Olympics (Jones 1993). Winning bonuses took a big part of that: rising from 8,000 yuan for gold medal winners in Los Angeles (1984) to 18,000 in 1988 and 80,000 in 1992 (with silver medalists receiving 50,000 and bronze medalists 30,000). The 13-year-old diving champion Fu Mingxia gained an additional 463,000 yuan from various sponsors (Jones 1993:76). This may be a paltry sum when compared to the earnings of top US athletes, but it is a staggering fortune in a country where a school teacher, for example, earns some 150 yuan a month. In other words, the 13-year-old diver gained in winnings the astonishing amount of 3,620 times more than a teacher’s monthly salary in 1990. 

China has inherited the Soviet sports structure, with its professional coaches, sports medicine and science, major sports clubs sponsored and financed by the armed and security (Dinamo in Eastern Europe) forces, sports ranking system, residential boarding schools, etc. But China took the system further. Whereas the Soviet Union had forty-six sports boarding schools in 1990, and East Germany twenty, China had 150 (Riordan 1994:74; Dong 1995: 62), whereas the USSR had 15,000 professional coaches, China had 18,173 in 1991 (Dong 1995:63). It is revealed that full-time athletes in China spend an average seven to eight hours a day on sports training and they are distributed as follows: 15,602 in provincial team sports centres; 28,192 in sports boarding schools; and 47,315 in elite “spare-time schools” (Dong 1995: 66). All training, board and lodging are free. 

In order to improve the system and bring it into line with major reforms in the mid-1980s, the government moved to a multi-level, multi-channel system which, while still based on state overall control and planning, was made more flexible and polymorphous. Corporate sponsorship was introduced and the financial rewards were substantially increased. This, then, is the basic infrastructure of China’s sports system and the springboard from which an assault was made on the world sporting citadels. 

The above texts by Robin Jones and James Riordan offer a good look of some aspects of the Chinese sports system. Although it’s not a comprehensive explanation yet, it is helpful to understand the current sports system in China, and it’s because of the characteristics mentioned above that the system needs to change now. 

Reference information included in the above texts is not listed here. The book’s information is: Sport and Physical Education in China, Robin Jones and James (Jim) Riordan, Taylor & Francis, 2002. 

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