China’s quest to become a sporting nation: why money cannot solve a cultural problem

  • China is pouring money into athletic programmes, facilities and infrastructure looking to become a sporting nation like the United States
  • Deep cultural differences between the two present serious challenges for China in its quest to rule the sporting world
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2018, 10:00pm

As much as this pains me to say as a Canadian, there is no denying the United States is the world’s premier sporting nation.

They have the second most Winter Olympic medals, behind only Norway, and close to 700 more Summer Olympic medals than any other nation. When it comes to North American sport leagues, they are dominated by Americans sans the National Hockey League which is 54 per cent Canadian.

What’s most fascinating about the US is their ability to cultivate premier programmes and athletes quickly in new sports.

Take USA Rugby, the governing body that was only founded in 1975, which now has the men’s 15s team ranked 12th in the world less than a year ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. The sevens team is also on the rise out of obscurity after impressive crowd numbers at last year’s 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in San Francisco.

And despite failing to qualify for the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia, American soccer is trending upwards with the team ranked 23rd, although one could argue breaking into the upper echelon of that sport may be permanently futile.

Regardless, players like 20-year-old Christian Pulisic and 25-year-old John Brooks show the country is starting to produce some talented players who can make an impact overseas thanks in part to players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, who paved the way.

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To put it bluntly, Americans love their sports like no other. The North American sports market alone, which includes media rights, gate revenue, sponsorship and merchandise, is expected to grow to US$80.3 billion by 2022 according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study.

This is up from US$69.1 billion last year and there’s also the rapidly expanding online sports betting market to take into account, which has yet to be properly quantified since America’s supreme court ruled in May that states could decide their own fates on legalising sports gambling.

China has star-spangled eyes when it comes to its sporting dreams, led by President Xi Jinping – a well known sports fan – who, along with the Communist Party of China, has installed a number of initiatives and dumped buckets of money into the industry. Whether this is another prong in the multifaceted war for international supremacy with the US is still up for debate, but it’s clear China wants to be known as a sporting nation.

The country will host the next Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022 and apparently Shanghai is mulling a bid for the 2032 Summer edition. China is also contemplating a World Cup bid, potentially in 2030 or 2034. This is all part of a plan to catch sporting fever back home, as the government has responded by building facilities and infrastructure all over the place, looking to cultivate and plant seeds for the future.

The government also released figures this year showing its own sports industry is on the rise, as it hit 1.9 trillion yuan (US$294.1 billion) in 2016, which includes a rapidly expanding sportswear market. The approach for Xi and the central government is two-pronged: its chronic disease epidemic has the potential to break the country financially (it could total US$16 trillion by 2030), and Xi wants to push Chinese culture into the world’s spotlight.

One of the best ways to do this is to nab international sporting headlines, whether it be the Olympics, or premier athletes at the top of their discipline. The likes of Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin speak volumes as to how superstars can elevate a game’s impact on home soil.

One could argue the grandiose 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing at the Bird’s Nest, which featured 15,000 performers and cost a reported US$100 million to produce, was as much about politics as it was about the actual Olympics.

China was given its first chance to showcase itself on the grandest of international stages, and it went all out and spared no expense. The ceremony was so spectacular it sent shivers through the Western world whose marvel turned into mild terror at the sheer ferocity China exhibited.

Problem is, becoming a sporting nation is not only about money, and one could argue its more cultural than anything else. Americans are born and bred on their sports and sporting teams. The love for a hometown team, like the Boston Red Sox or the Dallas Cowboys, is passed down from generation to generation like cherished heirlooms, infants still in cribs sporting tiny jerseys.

Its citizens cut their teeth on their accompanying heroes, worshipped like gods, and there are plenty to go around – Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, the list goes on.

American kids grow up playing sports and idolising athletes, and it’s a love like no other – a deep cultural pride embedded within the fabric of the nation.

China does not have this cultural make-up, and until it figures out its sporting quest is a cultural one, no dollar figure or extravagantly planned and hosted international event will remedy the situation. As they say in America, it has to be for the love of the game.