PLA surrenders its commanding role
The military is no longer the force it used to be on the playing field, writes Martin Zhou
In the old Soviet Union, they called it Dynamo. In the eastern European bloc countries, it manifested itself in the glaring Red Star. But in China, the usually arcane reference to the communist military sports regime is reduced to an austere date: August 1.
All the handful of remaining sports outfits under the aegis of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) are named for the date when the communist armed forces were founded in 1927.
The elite batch, led by Bayi (the Chinese acronym for Ba Yue Yi Ri, or August 1) men's basketball team, who won the domestic top division last season, originated from the bombarded mountains of Yan'an, dominated the country's domestic sports scene after the 1949 revolution and weathered the swirl of changes brought about by the country's astonishing economic and political transformation in recent years.
In an ongoing exhibition in Beijing marking the PLA's 80th anniversary, sports achievements held more than their fair share of interest among visitors, many of them having next year's Olympics in mind.
Eleven military athletes, according to accounts on display, have made their contribution to China's collection of 112 Olympic gold medals and, as some army sports insiders pointed out, the number could have been much higher had China been involved in the games earlier.
Sports and military service are not strange bedfellows, but nowhere else in the world is athletic endeavour so closely intertwined with the armed forces as in a communist regime, a practice that was best exemplified in the initial years of the mainland's communist rule.
The 1952 appointment of He Long, one of the republic's founding fathers and a fine commander dating back to the days of the Long March, to revive sport in China after the civil war defined the link between Chinese sports and the PLA. It was the golden era for the stirring Bayi badge. Parents of sports prospects were keen to send their offspring to the military instead of the fledgling civil sports apparatus as the benefits of being a soldier-athlete were too good to reject. For one thing, the PLA enjoyed a privilege in the then heavily rationed economy when it came to distribution of food and commodities.
'It was just like a boarding school except that we got everything for free, from meals to accommodation,' said Du Du, a veteran military diver who was recruited as a teenager in the 1950s. 'On top of that, the military authorities doled out a monthly six-yuan stipend to each of us. It was quite a sum, given the average monthly salary at the time was 20 yuan.'
Recruitment into the sports teams sponsored by the army also ensured the best training and best opportunities. At one stage in the 1960s, more than two-thirds of elite athletes on various national teams were enlisted soldiers.
Unfortunately for the athletes, China rejected the International Olympic Committee as a 'capitalist and imperialistic organisation' and thus missed the chance to show off the prowess of its soldier-athletes on the world stage. When the country resumed IOC membership in the early 1980s, however, things changed.
After Marshal He's death in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, the PLA's clout declined with local civilian authorities finding room to increase their sports budgets in the economic take-off. At the sixth National Games in 1983, the PLA for the first time dropped out of the top three in the gold medal tally.
Yet being a soldier-athlete remained an alluring career prospect for youngsters in the eyes of their parents, though from a slightly different perspective.
'The army is synonymous with stern discipline that builds one's integrity and character,' Wang Tao, 40, a 1992 Barcelona Olympics men's table tennis doubles champion who began his career in the PLA in the 1980s, said.
'My parents sent me to the Bayi team because they were convinced that I would come out a real man with grit.
'We had our lives regimented from reveille to lights-out,' said a former military swimmer in her 20s who asked to be identified as Xiao Tao.
Xiao retired from an eight-year soldier-athlete career in 2002. During her military days, it was not unusual for Xiao and her teammates to awake at 5.30am and swim a few laps in the pool before breakfast. Endless lectures would follow on patriotism, communism and the pre-eminence of the PLA, repeatedly reminding them of the difference between themselves and average athletes.
They would don uniforms once a month, sometimes less, to march with the regular soldiers and practise shooting with pistols and rifles.
'There was a long list of don'ts in effect, including some ridiculous rules,' recalled Xiao. 'We were allowed only limited access to music. Soft drinks, like Coca Cola, were also off limits.
'Once I dared to challenge the rules, buying a Coke from outside the barracks. A lengthy punishment ensued.'
But the spartan regime has increasingly become an anachronism, like the military sports system itself. After several major downsizing exercises, the PLA's sports portfolio has been scaled back to a few teams operating in the domestic professional leagues, including the award-winning basketball team and table tennis squad coached by the veteran paddler Wang. The army-backed teams can't recruit foreign players and are struggling to secure financial backing to survive in the big-spending professional sports world.
Though it is generally agreed the PLA's influence on sports will continue to wane, there seems to be a generational gap when it comes to viewing the role the PLA has played in the overall development of sport.
While the veteran diver Du and the paddler Wang are firm in their belief the army has played a vital role, swimmer Xiao is glad the Bayi era is drawing to a close.
'I don't want to recall the experience much,' said Xiao. 'And I don't want too many others to repeat what I have been through.'
Du estimated the current soldier-athlete population at around the 1,000 mark, as opposed to a peak of 5,000 in the early 1980s.
The number of athletes who are still members of the PLA: 1,000