Let the national sporting showcase for the ‘Chinese Dream’ begin
China’s biggest-ever National Games gets under way in Tianjin with a presidential call to spare no effort to advance sport
China fired the starter’s gun on its biggest National Games in Tianjin on Sunday night, an organisational warm-up for the 2022 Winter Olympics and a showcase for President Xi Jinping’s ambitions for a strong, patriotic country.
In all, a record 12,721 athletes will compete in 33 sports in the 12-day Olympics-style competition promoted as a “National Games for a healthy China”.
Another 7,620 amateurs and eight overseas athletes of Chinese heritage will also take part.
At the opening ceremony, Xi said no effort would be spared to advance sport.
“Sport sets the stage for a stronger and more prosperous country,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.
Among the big-name athletes taking part are swimming world record holder Sun Yang, volleyball stars Hui Ruoqi and Zhu Ting, top table tennis players Ma Long and Ding Ning, two-time Olympic badminton champion Lin Dan and sprinter Su Bingtian.
In a departure from previous meets, National Games organisers had done away with medal tallies to reduce unhealthy competition between local governments, state media reported.
Hong Kong University history professor Xu Guoqi said China had for decades used sport to promote national honour and political legitimacy, showing its prowess to the world through high-profile and well-funded sporting events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
This time the National Games were also tied to Xi’s “Chinese Dream”, a vision he outlined in 2013 for China’s rejuvenation as a great nation.
“With the current regime under Xi Jinping, he has openly, strongly and clearly linked sport with the so-called Chinese Dream,” said Xu, the author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports.
“China is using sport, national sport, to try to cultivate the loyalty of every Chinese [person], either Chinese citizens or overseas Chinese.
“It’s a win-win game for [Xi] to play … to link sport, the National Games, to the bigger game the Chinese government tries to play in the world.”
Mark Dreyer, founder of website China Sports Insider, said the National Games could be used to encourage wider participation in sport.
“Obviously, the government is trying to develop the sports industry and part of that comes with getting people more active in sports,” Dreyer said.
“The challenge is using the National Games to get people excited about sports to the extent where they want to do more themselves and get their children involved.”
But the National Games has not always been a model competition.
In Guangdong in 2001, Olympic gold medallist Luo Xuejuan accused other swimmers of doping, claiming she was a clean competitor.
Four years later in Nanjing, the women’s 78kg judo final had to be restaged after Liaoning athlete Sun Fuming was accused of deliberately losing to Yan Sirui.
At the 2009 Jinan games, 2008 Olympic trampoline champion He Wenna, who finished fifth behind rookie Zhong Xinping, hinted at match-fixing when she said after the competition that she knew who would win the final because the scoring was subjective.
And four years ago in Shenyang, the favoured Beijing women’s rugby sevens team lost 71-0 to Shandong after their players stood motionless throughout the second half, in a protest against what they claimed was unfair refereeing.