First priority

As you cheer China's Olympic gold medallists, spare a thought for the winners of silver and bronze medals. They toiled as long and as hard to bring glory to the motherland, but get little or no acclaim. This state-sponsored gold fever afflicts other countries too, but at least their runners-up are often celebrated at the team level.

A system that lauds only gold medals raises disturbing questions. What happened to the Olympic creed that values participation? And what does this gold fixation say about the values promoted by the Chinese government?

China's state-run system for producing national athletes is still modelled on the Soviet 'sports factories' that train potential Olympians from a young age. Their sport is chosen for them and becomes their life. Like China's world-beating consumer goods, Chinese Olympians are intensely engineered products manufactured in factories, to be discarded when they reach the end of their life cycle. Of the hundreds of thousands enrolled in sports schools in China, only 396 made it to this year's Olympic team. Their singular goal: to win gold. Anything less amounts to losing.

Due to a public outcry, China has recently begun to give some recognition to its silver and bronze medallists. Asking them to join the gold medallists during their post-Olympic 'victory lap' in Hong Kong would be a good start.

The gold medallists will also be rewarded with cash, cars, apartments and positions arranged by the government. After the 2008 Olympics, for example, each received US$51,000 from the General Administration of Sport; nothing was announced for the silver and bronze winners. When the gold medallists visit Hong Kong, local tycoons give them more goodies. Raised only to excel in their sport, most have no marketable skills. The government has yet to come up with an official plan to address the needs of retired athletes.

You only hear about the few who do move on to a viable future: Li Ning, the winner of six medals in gymnastics (three gold) in the 1984 Olympics, who built a sportswear empire; Deng Yaping, who won four table-tennis golds in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, then went on to study at Tsinghua University and later earned a doctorate at Cambridge in Britain.

But the majority struggle to make a normal life. Weightlifter Cai Li, a gold medallist at the 1990 Asian Games, could only find a job as a security guard and died in 2003 from causes related to years of hard training. The China Sports Daily has estimated that 80per cent of China's retired athletes suffer unemployment, poverty or health problems from overtraining.

So what's behind the Chinese state's fixation on gold? A comment by Chinese Olympic Committee president Liu Peng is revealing. He told the London-bound national team to do their best as a contribution to the Communist Party congress later this year at which China's new leadership will be unveiled. The Olympic spirit is reduced to confirming the party's hold on power. China's sports system is organised to win gold medals not for the athletes, or even for Chinese citizens, but for boosting nationalism and the legitimacy of the ruling party.

Tom Yam is a Hong Kong-based management consultant. He holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania