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China's Olympic Flop, "Planned Economy" Sports System To Blame

Chinese gymnast Hao You after a fall at the Rio Olympics on Aug. 16
Chinese gymnast Hao You after a fall at the Rio Olympics on Aug. 16
Chen Hongmin


BEIJING — As the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro come to an end, the Chinese delegation's "failure" seems to be a foregone conclusion. Even in gymnastics, where it had excelled in the past, China won only two bronze medals, making it the worst performance of the past decade.

The first reaction of the Chinese media was to blame the judges for Chinese athletes' poor results. But following the Chinese team's significant setbacks in swimming, shooting and other events where judges don't decide, China's official media was finally obliged to face the reality.

Gold medals indeed should not be the only goal we pursue. The spirit of the Olympics is to participate and to strive for excellence. Still, the failure to meet expectations in Rio has revealed a longstanding lack of progress in China's competitive sports system.

Though China has been reforming and opening up for three decades, our competitive sports remain largely in the era of the strictly planned economy. The government fully finances the athletes, while the athletes' only purpose in life is to win medals in the various international competitions. Entrusted with the mission of "bringing glory to the nation," they expect gold medals to directly affect China's international status. The major national sports resources are all injected into this massive structure of the national team.

An Olympics team set up under such a system and such a guiding ideology has but one goal: winning gold medals. Every four years, China's national team — nicknamed by the public "the sports propaganda song and dance group" — is called on to perform. Official media touts the delegation and focuses on those vying for gold.

"Winner takes all" is the philosophy. This explains why this year is considered a failure, when China dispatched such a large expeditionary force to harvest so few golds.

Reaching the masses

In the face of such a setback, instead of blaming bias of foreign judges or a coach's bad tactics, China should instead reevaluate the nation's fundamental strategy on the sporting front. The country's athletic structure no longer reaches the mass of people, and has failed to play an effective role in promoting mass sports and public health.

Even in table tennis, where China still reigns supreme, and in which it used to boast a huge following, the performance is subtly but steadily getting weaker. When the state injects impressive sums of taxpayer money into competitive sports, the output should be more than a "show" that comes every four years.

From the overall environmental perspective, even if the government would like to insist on continuing to rear a batch of selected "good seeds" in a confined ground, the opportunities of the open market economy will gradually overtake such a practice.

One of the key reasons why Chinese athletes have struggled in Rio is because they are more and more knowledgeable about, and tempted by, the market economy. Today's sportsmen and sportswomen have much wider horizons and are much more open-minded. It's also hard to stop a talented youth from accepting sponsorship deals: Young stars know that they must accumulate as much wealth as possible while they are still under the spotlight. They have definitely heard the stories of their predecessors who won a dozen gold medals, only to end up jobless a couple of years later. This is obviously a good lesson for them to learn.

What it means is that our athletes are obliged to spend more and more time on non-training and non-sports activities when they step off the podium. In short, whether it's from a national or a social point of view, China's system for closed and conservative competitive sports management operations is outdated — though what comes in its place remains to be seen. Then Chinese can return to their favorite sport: counting Olympic gold medals.

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