Playing the numbers game

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2008, 12:00am

In 1949, buoyed by the elation of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the inaugural leader of the State Physical Education and Sports Commission issued a declaration that was ultimately to inspire the birth of the rigid, centralised sports system that could see China top the medals table on August 24.

'Now, the Chinese people have to stand up in the world,' He Long said. 'We should take this [sick man of Asia] label from our heads. Who is going to do this? Sport could undertake this arduous but glorious task.'

Subsequently, sport became a key component of China's political ideology. A 'spiritual nuclear weapon' is how chairman Mao Zedong described China's first world champion - table tennis player Rong Guotuan - in 1959.

More than half a century after its 1956 inception, the nation's vast athletic production line could be about to deliver the ultimate sporting accomplishment.

Before He made his declaration, China's athletes had not won a medal in three summer Olympics. Since the founding of the republic and development of the government-controlled sports machine in 1956, all that has changed.

China has since participated in six summer Games, winning 112 gold medals. Aside from a blip at Seoul in 1988 (5 golds) when it finished 11th overall, the nation has maintained a top-five place for the last quarter of a century, coming fourth in Los Angeles in 1984 (15 golds), third in Barcelona in 1992 (16 golds) and fourth in Atlanta in 1996 (16 golds). Four years later in Sydney, China came third (28 golds) and in Athens in 2004 it was second (32 golds) behind the US in the gold-medal race and third in total behind the US and Russia.

For the all-powerful, cash-rich State Sports General Administration, the wall-chart trajectory shows an upward trend that looks on track to eclipse the US in medals won.

The pressure on the 639 athletes who have made the final cut for Beijing has always been immense.

When the International Olympic Committee voted in favour of Beijing in 2001, the sports administration drew up the Strategic Plan for Winning Olympic Medals in 2008, which was sub-headed, Winning Pride at the Olympics. The document mapped out just how they intended to beat the US.

'Project 119' identified medal-rich sports, many not traditional to the Chinese, such as rowing. It was deemed that by throwing enough money and talent at these disciplines, the Chinese flag would fly proudly over the centre platform even more regularly than if they relied on traditional strengths, such as diving and table tennis.

The project was approved by the government, and the annual sports budget was almost doubled from 2000 to when the 2008 Olympic contract was signed - taking it to about 5 billion yuan (HK$5.72 billion).

Ever-increasing Olympic success over the past 16 years proves the centralised system works. But it has flaws. The athletes and coaches indulged by the government have to deliver. Teams are given specific targets for the number of the medals expected - and punishment for failure is swift.

The strict discipline, early selection process and isolated, secretive training camps have raised eyebrows internationally - plus whispers about rampant doping and stories of cruel and callous coaches.

But despite the negatives, there is no doubting the controversial methods get results. The ultimate proof will come with a chart-topping performance when it matters most.