In terms of scale, the National Games rival their more prestigious worldwide counterpart, the Olympics. The recently ended 12th edition in Liaoning had three more events and almost as many athletes. Where the two sporting occasions differ, though, is direction. While the Olympic charter speaks of promoting friendly competition, gamesmanship and fitness, the Chinese equivalent has strayed from its original purpose - so far that it should either be reformed or scrapped.
The first National Games were held in 1959 with the aim of getting the nation healthy through sport. Since the late 1980s, though, they have evolved into an extravaganza of spending excess, one-upmanship and unfairness. Although in Shenyang , Beijing's austerity drive put paid to the spectacular opening ceremonies of previous games, the competition was still marred by bad sportsmanship, allegedly biased refereeing and cheating. Particularly criticised was the Beijing women's rugby team throwing a game against Shandong over refereeing; Hainan's men's junior volleyballers faking the age of players; a wrestler biting an opponent; and two women fighting during the 10-kilometre swim. Such incidents make a mockery of the hard work of dedicated athletes and coaches.
Much of the problem lies in the gains to be made by provincial authorities from their teams performing well. Medal tallies determine sports funding over the coming four years and officials' careers rest heavily on the results. In consequence, rewards for athletes can be greater than for the Olympics and a win-at-all-costs atmosphere has been created. It is little wonder that many in China have come to see the event as a farce.
Large-scale sporting events have value in helping choose the best athletes for overseas competitions and raising the profile of less popular disciplines. They can also get communities interested in fitness and participating in healthy pastimes. The National Games in their present form do not adequately attain such goals. Perhaps the event should return to basics and a better way found to choose the best elite athletes. At the least, its worth to the nation has to be re-evaluated.