End China's state-led sports system

Hu Shuli says changing attitudes in a more open society mean that the model has outlived its usefulness and now lumbers on as an ever greater drain on resources

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2012, 2:46am

The London Olympics have just ended and the memory of Chinese athletes giving their all to win honours is still fresh in our minds. Who can forget Liu Xiang's heart-wrenching fall in the hurdles event?

Even before the Games were over, the pros and cons of China's state-driven sports system were already being hotly debated. The public concern gives reason to re-evaluate the organisation of sports development in China.

China's state-run sports system is a legacy of central planning. The state deploys the human, financial and material resources at its command to produce athletes who win medals at international competitions, particularly gold medals at the Olympics. Despite the reform drive over the past 30 years, this system has remained untouched and can even be said to have strengthened alongside China's economic growth.

Admittedly, the sight of a Chinese gold medallist waving the national flag and singing the national anthem boosts our self-confidence. But while we acknowledge the system's positive contribution in the past, we can't ignore the problems that have become more obvious today.

Nationalism and faith in an omnipotent government have twisted the essence of sport: sports as a pursuit for pleasure and entertainment has become of secondary consideration, while the development of sports for all is out of the question.

As China becomes more developed and its society more open, many Chinese no longer see national athletes as mere symbols of the nation. Thus, their wins and losses in international competitions are increasingly seen in the context of individual striving. With attitudes changing, the state-run system is losing its support in society.

Yet even as its reason for being weakens, the costs of maintaining it have only increased. Like any other product of a planned economy, the state sports system cannot efficiently allocate resources, because - with politicians' whims guiding priorities - its true costs and benefits cannot be accurately reflected. High investments are made for low returns; the result is massive waste.

Unsurprisingly, the money spent on China's sports system has never been fully accounted for. The cost of an Olympic gold medal has been estimated at between 60 million yuan (HK$73.5million) and an astounding several hundred million yuan.

Supporters of the state sports system talk up the importance of winning gold medals without regard to the toll it takes on our finances and society. This is irresponsible. The head of the General Administration of Sport, for one, has tried to play down criticism of extravagance, saying that the central government provides only limited funds. But most of the expenses are paid for by the local governments. Finance officials who once tried to total up the expenses soon gave up because the sums and projects involved were too complicated. A system with lax budget controls cannot last, if only because the taxpayers who foot the bill will one day find the burden unbearable.

These supporters also accused critics of being uninformed about China's reality. Some even say advocating reform is akin to worshipping Western dogma.

The truth is, these people are the ones who have failed to recognise the progress China has made over the years of reform and opening up. The framework for a market economy in China has long been set, and changes to the state-led sports management system, such as by learning from other management systems, are long overdue. Clinging to a false sense of superiority and denouncing the effective management systems of other countries is a backward, ignorant way of thinking.

The state sports system must be phased out. The sooner reform can begin, the better. A good time to kick-start reform would have been after the Beijing Olympics, but sadly no action was taken.

The main barrier is the obsession with gold medals. Interest groups exaggerate the political significance of a gold medal and even suggest that sporting success reinforces political legitimacy. This misguided view has clouded policymakers' judgment of the stakes of reform.

Thanks to China's economic success, Chinese people have truly "stood up". Winning or losing a few medals can hardly affect our national pride. Any pent-up desire for gold medals would have been released when China won 51 in 2008. Even supporters of the state sports system must admit that far fewer people cared how many gold medals were won in London. China's sports development is ready for reform. All that's needed is political will.

First, we must clearly define the roles of the government, social groups, the market and the family. The government should focus on sports promotion for all to improve people's health, including by providing facilities and enhancing physical education in schools. In elite sports, the government should slowly step back to allow other social sectors to do more, to promote the development of a professional sports industry.

The reform of government structure, which was interrupted in 1998, should be on the agenda of the 12th National People's Congress next year. This time, a motion to discuss the role of the government's sports agencies must be tabled. The aim must be to devolve control. To be a true sporting nation, this is a step China must take.