China's party people

For more than a week after the closing ceremony in Athens the Olympic party was still going strong in China. Celebrations for the country’s record-breaking medal haul were in full swing, with athletes singing karaoke on triumphant TV specials, political leaders proclaiming a new era of national self-confidence and companies lining up for endorsements from a new generation of national heroes.

The nation’s triumphant athletes —they finished second in the medals table with 32 golds, 17 silvers and 14 bronzes — were on a victory tour that, in keeping with the sporting environment of one of the world’s fastest-changing nations, is part political, part commercial and part fun.

From the cheering, flag-waving crowds who greeted the athletes at Beijing airport, the country’s Olympic heroes were whisked off to the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, where President Hu Jintao said they had become ‘a strong spiritual force to push forward the national cause”.

Last weekend they took to the stage for a glitzy all-singing, all-dancing TV celebration of previously undreamt-of sporting success. Liu Xiang, the 110m hurdler who became China’s first male Olympic track gold medal-winner, gave a karaoke rendition of the love song I miss you.
The country’s first tennis champions, Li Ting and Sun Tiantian, who won the women’s doubles, sang a duet of Friend and the women’s volleyball team chorused Sunshine After Rain.

On Monday the victory tour went to Hong Kong, where the athletes were being put to propaganda use. Before a crucial election on Sunday, the mainland Communist Party wants to use Olympic success to foster patriotic pride and counter widespread frustrations in the terri-tory about the slow progress of democratic reform. Among the events being planned is a rematch of the China and Hong Kong table-tennis teams who competed at the Olympics.

And this is just the start of the politically motivated celebrations.

Construction is in full swing for the 2008 Beijing games, a ‘coming of age” party for a country that has overcome the chaos of the cultural revolution to reclaim its place as a leading player on the world stage. In this respect, it will be similar to the 1964 Tokyo games, which signalled the re-emergence of Japan from the ashes of World War II, or the 1988 Seoul games, which announced the arrival of South Korea as a major Asian economy. Beijing has ambitious plans to trump all previous hosts by staging the most expensive games ever. By 2007, organisers estimate that the city will have 20 new sites, including venues for such non-indigenous sports as beach volleyball.

To ensure that visitors leave impressed, the city also plans to spend up to $40-billion on upgrading its infrastructure — a bigger investment than every summer Olympics since 1984 combined. There are plans to spend $12-million on thousands of new toilets, including five-star, self-cleaning techno-loos that could hardly be more different from the communal pits that are common today.

Among the most impressive new buildings will be the 80 000-seat, $360-million National Stadium, which has been nicknamed ‘the bird’s nest” because of its lattice of irregularly angled metal girders. The 17 000-seat National Swimming Centre is designed to resemble an ice cube suspended in thin air.

Construction has begun on 15 of the 19 new venues, which were originally scheduled for completion in 2006. This was likely to prove so expensive, maintaining unused sites for two years, that the Beijing organisers have been told to slow down. Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said that it was unprecedented in Olympic history to call for a delay.

The eagerness to get everything ready so quickly reflects the huge ambitions of China for 2008. ‘The games will be a kind of vehicle to showcase China opening up,”said Wang Wei, Secretary General of the organising committee. ‘China is the biggest developing country, the fastest-growing economy and the Olympics enjoy the greatest support in China.”

Sport is a product of the same apparently contradictory forces that are driving China’s economy forward faster than anywhere else in the world: authoritarian communist politics and cut-throat capitalist economics.

The Olympic team are the ultimate symbol of centralised state-planning. While Britain and most other Western countries largely leave the management of sports to independent associations, China centralises power and planning in the hands of the China Sports Bureau, which is represented by a Cabinet-level ministry. Its mission is clear. Just as the Soviet Union did with such effect during the Cold War, the Chinese government is pumping vast sums of money into grooming medal contenders for every sport.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by. But, according to Li Dunhou, director of the Auditing Centre of General Administration of Sport, the bureau’s budget rose more than 15% last year to £150-million. Part of this is spent on incentives. Athletes are given £13 500 for a gold medal, £8 000 for a silver and £5 500 for a bronze. In addition, many are awarded luxury homes and cash prizes from their local government and lucrative gifts from businessmen.

Most of the state’s money goes on training. Less than a decade ago Chinese athletes competed seriously in only a few events, notably table tennis, diving, weightlifting and gymnastics. But since China was awarded the 2008 Games, the country’s sports bureau has dramatically accelerated a programme to build an Olympic team capable of challenging the world’s best in every field. The results are already apparent in terms of the number of competitors and their levels of success. In Sydney four years ago China competed in only half of the events. But by Athens this year it had athletes in 26 out of the 28 sports. By 2008 it will compete in everything.

Even though 80% of the young team made their debut in Athens — which was treated by the government as a springboard for 2008 — many showed that they have caught up with their international rivals and in a surprising number of cases have even overtaken them.

With success at last on the track and numerous other Chinese firsts in judo, swimming and tennis, the country notched up a record high of 63 medals, a remarkable achievement for a nation that did not even participate in the modern Olympics until 1984.

In the 20 years since, China’s sporting advances have mirrored the remarkable changes in its economy. The world’s big commercial sports have moved in, even motor racing. Fast cars, beautiful women and big bucks are probably the last things most people would associate with China, which is better known around the world for bicycles, pigtails and communism, but this month Shanghai will stage the country’s first Formula One race.

The foreign influence — money and coaches — is also increasingly apparent in football, which is far and away the country’s most popular sport. In 2001 millions of people celebrated on the streets when the national team, then coached by the Serbian Bora Milutinovic, reached the World Cup finals for the first time.

Every sports marketing manager wants to break into a potential market of 1,3-billion people and it seems that China is ready to give any sport a try, including bullfighting, which is beamed live from Spain once a week. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will play tennis in China for the first time this month and even cricket might make inroads.

Although that most colonial of English games is now played mainly by expatriates, the government is reported to have offered land, facilities and equipment to encourage wider interest in the sport. International cricket authorities are doing their bit to raise cricket’s profile through the Shanghai Sixes competition, which this year will have Viv Richards as one of its guests.

‘China is the next frontier for the game’s expansion,” said Shahriar Khan of the Asian Cricket Council. ‘Coaching, funding and facilities are in place to fast-track China into playing one-day matches against other ICC associates within the next few years. The long-term objective is for China to participate in future World Cups.”

The sponsors are also moving in, among them Kunlun, a motor-oil producer, Siemens, the German engineering firm, Sinopec, the domestic energy giant, and countless more international firms. While such commercialisation would have infuriated Chairman Mao, it is seen today as a positive boost to the economy and society.

‘China’s sports have developed very quickly in the past few years. In the old days, sport was simply a function of state power, but commercialisation has brought it much closer to the people and raised the standards closer to an international level,” said Sun Baoli, a professor at the Olympic research centre of Beijing Sports University. ‘The success in Athens will accelerate this trend further.”

As with other aspects of China’s astonishing development, everything in sport seems possible, but nothing is certain. Potential party-poopers include cash problems, already hinted at by the recently announced decision to cut spending on Olympic venues, traffic problems and protests about China’s record on human rights. But with four years left, there is still time to fix all these problems.

By 2008, one thing is certain — in this fast-changing nation, sport will be unrecognisable from what it was a few short years ago. — 

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