Mass participation in sport urged after Games gold rush

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2008, 12:00am

Critics seek change in system that favours elite athletes

China's haul of 51 gold, 21 silver and 28 bronze medals at the Games was achieved thanks to generous government funding and a single-minded sports system dedicated to churning out champions.

Yet not everyone has been impressed. Critics and even some state media commentators are calling for changes to the system to allow greater participation in sporting activities by the public, not just elite athletes.

Soon after China won the bid to host the Olympic Games, the government mapped out 'gold medal strategies' to ensure the Chinese team won as many medals as possible, says Jin Can , a sports researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. China's obsession with gold medals, Professor Jin said, was rooted in a century of western territorial encroachment and ensuing wars that led to the downfall of a once powerful nation.

'China wants the gold medals to boost its international image and to shake off the century-old stigma of 'the sick man of Asia',' he said, referring to a derogatory term the western powers used for the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) at the turn of the 20th century. As part of its strategy for winning gold medals, Beijing rolled out 'Project 119' after the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The project was named after the total number of gold medals on offer in sports that China traditionally did poorly in - track and field, swimming and other aquatic events such as rowing and sailing.

The project's content remains a mystery, but the results are evident. Yin Jian won China's first windsurfing medal last week. A women's quadruple sculls crew won China's first rowing gold medal on August 17. Breakthroughs were also made in boxing and archery, resulting in 13 'bonus', or unexpected, gold medals for China.

These bonus medals helped China make a great leap in the medal count from the 15 gold, eight silver and nine bronze it won in Los Angeles in 1984.

Professor Jin said the enormous government investment in the sports system - a total also not publicised - was another key factor in the medal haul.

'The central government just spared no cost in its ''08 gold medal strategy' to make sure it was a success,' he said. But Professor Jin said the system had to change after the Olympic Games because it was operating at the expense of public participation in sport.

China's sports system is an elite programme that pools the best youngsters and trains them in athletic academies at various levels.

'This 'gold medal strategy' means every official, from the top level to the grass roots, focuses on producing only gold-medal-winning athletes. Only the sports directors who can train gold-winning athletes are good directors,' he said. 'As a result, the officials care only about achieving good results. They don't care about promoting sport to the public.'

Professor Jin said systematic reforms could be pending after 'the authority and the country calm down from the Olympic triumph'.

'There is a consensus among academics that the new strategy should promote mass participation in sports activities,' he said.

Various mainland media commentators have also argued that despite the gold medal harvest, China excelled in only the so-called fringe sports such as weightlifting and gymnastics.

In popular sports such as soccer, basketball and swimming, China's performance was disappointing. In team sports, only the women's volleyball squad managed to win a medal - a bronze. That was disheartening for those who had hoped to see the team retain the gold it had won in Athens four years ago.

'China is a big country with 1.3 billion people. There is an abundance of sporting talent, but competition is just part of sports development ... now China needs to transform the Olympic gold medal rush to a sports rush,' a Xinhua commentary said.

A commentary in The Beijing News argued it was premature to say whether China had already attained sporting superpower status.

'The real issue is whether the whole society can enjoy collective health and happiness from the gold medal breakthroughs,' it said.

There are suggestions that the centralised sports system should start allowing the market to play a greater role in promoting sport. But Wei Jizhong , an adviser to the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, disagrees.

'There are so many sports that are not mature enough yet to face the market. Government funding is still very important in promoting them,' he said.