/ 21 August 2008

A sporting start

Exactly 100 years ago a Chinese YMCA lecturer had a dream — that one day China would host the Olympic games.

That dream is now coming true and Xu Guoqi’s highly readable book, Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008 (Harvard) traces the history of China’s sporting ambition, from an obscure lecture in Tientsin in 1908 to the “high-quality Olympics with Chinese characteristics” that have just opened in Beijing.

Xu notes that the modern Chinese word for sport, tiyu, didn’t exist until the 1890s and that late 19th-century Chinese attitudes towards the body and physical training “were ambivalent, to say the least … Chinese elites generally considered sports undignified — a robust body was not consistent with the idea of the cultured gentleman”. But as the Chinese empire crumbled and morale was crucially undermined by the country’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, Chinese people became convinced that their nation was a “sick man” whose body needed to be strengthened through a regime of rigorous physical exercise. Sun Yat-sen, China’s first president, declared that: “If we want to make our country strong, we must first make sure our people have strong bodies.”

Nationalists stressed the need for shangwu or “warlike spirit”, and Avery Brundage, later president of the International Olympic Committee, wrote in the 1930s that as a result of physical fitness being neglected, “The highly intellectual citizens of China have allowed themselves to be plundered by their own bandits for generations.”

China’s contact with the emergent Olympic movement was slow and hesitant and, although a national Olympic committee was formed in 1922, China did not participate in an Olympiad until 1932. Its team in Los Angeles consisted of just one man, Liu Changchun, a sprinter, and he was only dispatched at the last minute because of money problems. China took part much more enthusiastically in the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympics, sending 69 athletes, but failed to win a single medal. Xu devotes little attention to these games and says even less about the 1948 London Olympics, at which the penniless Chinese team stayed in a primary school and cooked their own meals.

Mao Zedong, in his first published article, declared that “Physical education … should be the number one priority.” But the Communist party had little awareness of the Olympics when it came to power in 1949, and it took some time for the new government to realise that one of China’s three IOC members had chosen to remain on the mainland rather than flee to Taiwan. At the urging of the Soviet Union, China made a last-minute application to participate in the 1952 games in Helsinki, but its delegation arrived just one day before the closing ceremony. The delay was largely caused by the “two Chinas” dispute that continues to haunt the Olympics to this day.

Xu notes how the IOC had closed its eyes to the two-China issue since the early 1950s and how Canada lost friends by promising Beijing it would honour a one-China policy despite having committed itself to Taiwan’s participation in the Olympics in 1969. China first became an Olympic powerhouse at the Los Angeles games in 1984, when it won 15 golds. At the Athens Olympics in 2004 it came second only to the United States.

This book focuses on the tricky negotiations involving Beijing, Taipei and the IOC over participation, often in fascinating detail, although it is not entirely clear why so much attention is devoted to ping-pong diplomacy between Beijing and Washington, which has little direct connection to the Olympics. Xu refers to the self-proclaimed Taoist Brundage, who was IOC president from 1952 to 1972, as “not particularly famous for his intellectual observations” and “not a good communicator”, which is rather mild for someone widely regarded as being pro-Nazi. There are also many important areas which Xu neglects, including Chinese doping scandals, Tibet, and the IOC’s business ties with the Beijing authorities. —