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  • Sep 20, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

China's state sport system has to change

Lijia Zhang says, however, it's no excuse for bias shown to China's Olympians

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 9:18pm

If you take a quick look at the popular Chinese microblog Sina Weibo, you'll notice a lot of anger: "London, we have not offended you. Why do you treat us so badly?"; "China has been wronged. Where is the justice?"; "In 2008, the Chinese people showed such friendliness towards the Olympians and the visitors. Why is China getting such cold treatment in London?"

These are the reactions to a string of controversies involving Chinese athletes: 16-year-old Ye Shiwen was smeared with doubt about whether she had taken performance-enhancing drugs after winning a gold medal in swimming; Chinese women track cyclists Guo Shuang and Gong Jinjie set two world records but were given only a silver medal instead of the gold they felt they deserved; and, a judge awarded the gold medal to a Brazilian gymnast ahead of Chen Yibing, known as the "king of rings" in China and the favourite for the title.

Such controversies led many Chinese to believe that there was a conspiracy against China at the London Olympics.

I agree that China got a bad press and it didn't deserve that. Partly, China has become the victim of its own sporting success, which has extended into fields traditionally dominated by Westerners - swimming, for example. There is perhaps some jealousy, or at least discomfort, in the West about China's achievements.

So, people instinctively regard super performers like Ye as "cheats" or the product of the ruthless state-sports model copied from the Soviet Union. Under such a system, the government invests huge amounts of money and resources in a few who have the potential to win Olympic gold.

I don't approve of the system, and it would seem I am not the only Chinese to feel this way: on Sina Weibo, between the bursts of anger, there have been plenty of posts questioning whether it is worth spending millions on sports elites just to dazzle the Olympic world, and whether it is worth the suffering endured by the athletes, not only the relentless training but also the emotional cost - children often don't see their families for years.

Still, there is no justification to lash out at the Chinese Olympians because of disapproval of the system. Every Chinese gold medallist won his or her glory on the back of blood and sweat. And many are very talented; China does after all have a huge pool to choose from.

There may be another, deep-rooted reason to explain China's unfavourable treatment in London. Its rapid rise in the world has aroused uneasiness and even fear among people in the West. The bad press, in some ways, is a reflection of such negative feelings towards the country.

This has touched a nerve. In China, people take the Olympics more seriously than most nations. Many associate China's Olympic glory with its rise in the world and its rising national strength. Remember, we used to be called the "Sick Man of Asia".

A few days ago, the
Global Times ran an article about how Chinese people shouldn't be too gracious in the face of unjust treatment at the Olympics, and encouraged people to voice their displeasure.

As a Chinese who has lived in the West, I can understand both sides' perspective. I think China should modify its sports model and take a far more relaxed approach towards Olympic gold medals. We've proved our brilliance to the world and the medals have served their purpose as a social morale booster. If an athlete wins a silver medal, he should feel proud - as long as he has done his best - instead of shame, as was the case of weightlifter Wu Jingbiao.

Even though China finished second overall in the medal table, it doesn't mean it is a big sporting nation. The ready availability of sports facilities in schools and the inclusion of all kinds of sports for the masses are far more significant.

As for the West, it has to steel itself for a more powerful China in the economic, military and sporting field.

Lijia Zhang is a Beijing-based writer, commentator and author of Socialism is Great! A Worker's Memoir of the New China

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