China’s Olympic Machine

A massive investment falls just short. This time.

A few days ago, the NYT’s Hannah Beech described the People’s Republic of China’s massive system designed to win Olympic medals to showcase the regime.

China’s sports assembly line is designed for one purpose: churning out gold medals for the glory of the nation. Silver and bronze barely count. By fielding 413 athletes in Tokyo, the largest number since the Beijing Games in 2008, China aims to land at the top of the gold medal count — even if the Chinese public is increasingly wary of the sacrifices made by individual athletes.

“We must resolutely ensure we are first in gold medals,” Gou Zhongwen, the head of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics.

Rooted in the Soviet model, the Chinese system relies on the state to scout tens of thousands of children for full-time training at more than 2,000 government-run sports schools. To maximize its golden harvest, Beijing has focused on less prominent sports that are underfunded in the West or sports that offer multiple Olympic gold medals.

It’s no coincidence that nearly 75 percent of the Olympic golds China has won since 1984 are in just six sports: table tennis, shooting, diving, badminton, gymnastics and weight lifting. More than two-thirds of China’s golds have come courtesy of female champions, and nearly 70 percent of its Tokyo delegation are women.

Women’s weight lifting, which became a medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Games, was an ideal target for Beijing’s gold medal strategy. The sport is a niche pursuit for most athletic powerhouses, meaning that female lifters in the West must scramble for funding. And with multiple weight classes, weight lifting offers up four potential golds.

For Beijing’s sports czars, it didn’t matter that weight lifting has no mass appeal in China or that the preteen girls funneled into the system had no idea that such a sport even existed. At the weight lifting national team’s training center in Beijing, a giant Chinese flag covers an entire wall, reminding lifters that their duty is to nation, not to self.

[…]

Most countries are eager for Olympic glory. The United States and the Soviet Union used the Games as a proxy Cold War battleground. But Beijing’s obsession with gold is tied up in the very founding in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China, which was seen as a revolutionary force that would reverse centuries of decay and defeat by foreign powers.

The first essay that Chairman Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist revolution, wrote was about the need for a country dismissed as “the sick man of Asia” to develop its muscle.

For decades, though, politics got in the way of Olympic achievement. Because its rival Taiwan competed in the Games as the Republic of China, Beijing boycotted the Summer Games until 1984, when Taiwan was renamed Chinese Taipei for Olympic competition.

In 1988, China won five Olympic golds. Two decades later, when Beijing hosted the Games, it surpassed the United States to top the gold count.

London 2012, though, was a letdown and Rio 2016 a bigger disappointment, as China came in third behind the United States and Britain.

To the extent the “Olympic spirit” and “amateurism” remain a thing, this obviously flies in the face of it. But the Soviets long ago flouted it with their own version of this system and longstanding history of cheating, which the Russians continue with no real consequence. (Their team was banned from these Games but their athletes were allowed to compete as “the Russian Olympic Committee” in national uniforms and with their national anthem played at the medal ceremonies.) And, while the United States doesn’t have anything this draconian, we invest quite a bit in Olympic training.

Even in Communist China, though, people are starting the wonder if the reward is worth the enormous price.

Back at home, sports officials redoubled their efforts, even if a growing number of middle-class parents were unwilling to hand their children to the state for grooming as athletes. China was no longer a desperately poor country where the promise of filled rice bowls made government sports schools alluring. Beijing acknowledged that sports shouldn’t be reserved for elite athletes, that every child deserved to run, play and kick a ball.

And there was growing recognition that for every Olympic champion, tens of thousands of other children would not make it. For these castoff athletes, life is often difficult: little education, damaged bodies, few career prospects outside the sports system.

Still, Beijing continued with its plans, manufacturing programs in taekwondo, canoeing, sailing and more. Children who could stack bullets on the palms of their hands were dispatched to archery. Country girls with impressive wingspans were directed to weight lifting.

“Children from rural areas or from families that are not so good economically, they adapt well to the hardships,” Li, the Beijing sports official, said of the ideal candidate for weight lifting.

Beijing’s focus has been on sports that can be perfected with rote routines, rather than those that involve an unpredictable interplay of multiple athletes. Aside from women’s volleyball, China has never won Olympic gold in a large team sport.

[…]

The sacrifices made by China’s Olympians are intense. Academic instruction in sports schools remains paltry, and some world champions share dorm rooms with others. They are lucky to see their family a few times a year.

[…]

For female weight lifters, the costs of China’s sports system are that much greater. While divers and gymnasts must share proceeds from endorsement deals with the state, at least they can leverage their success after retirement. But advertisers don’t tend to be drawn to female weight lifters.

There’s a lot more but one gets the idea. It’s a pretty horrific system but, as Breech notes in a follow-up, one that has paid dividends in the just-ended “2020” games. China fell just shy of winning the most gold medals:

The United States has won the most medals at the Tokyo Olympics and will be the only country to take home more than 100. But on the last day of competition, the race for the most gold medals was a tight contest between the United States and China.

That race is particularly important to China, which has tried to harness its youth for Olympic glory ever since rejoining the summer Olympic movement in 1984.

[…]

It paid off in Tokyo. China scored golds in the sports it has dominated in the past, like weight lifting, diving, gymnastics and table tennis. But it also claimed victories in canoeing, cycling, rowing and athletics, and underscored its growing strength in swimming. The majority of China’s gold medals came from women or from mixed team events.

Several of the US medals came in team sports, including men’s and women’s basketball. And it’s worth noting that, for all of the systemic advantages China possesses, the diversity of the US talent pool likely made the difference.

FILED UNDER: China, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    The travails of the Olympics is about as interesting as big time college sports.

    13
  2. de stijl says:

    The UK punches far above its weight by population. Has done so for the last few Olympics. I wonder why.

    1
  3. drj says:

    @de stijl:

    The UK punches far above its weight by population. Has done so for the last few Olympics. I wonder why.

    Money.

    Great Britain won only one gold medal in Atlanta (1996), after which it was decided to invest a large percentage of the revenues of their national lottery into sports.

    Great Britain’s 65 medals cost £345m (ca. $500m).

    I can’t find any specific figures, but I very, very strongly suspect that the US spent far more than any other participating country.

    5
  4. ptfe says:

    To be clear what the actual IOC sanction resulted in, the ROC does not play the Russian national anthem on the podium, it plays an approved Tschaikovsky number (Piano Concerto No 1). They are surely very sorry for all the doping &cetera.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog: There’s no requirement to read or comment on posts that don’t interest you.

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  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    China’s official line is it actually won the medal count because it’s claiming the medals the Hong Kong and Taiwan teams won.

    1
  7. Kathy says:

    I skipped the entire COVID Olympics.

    Many countries value olympic glory, but not all are willing to pay for it. Mexico had its best showing in 1968, with 9 (nine) medals, when Mexico City hosted the games. How long does it take the US, China, UK, etc. get nine medals in any games? Two days? Three?

    I don’t really give a damn. But every four years, there’s much complain in the press about the poor showing of Mexico’s athletes, and calls for more money to be invested in them. This lasts a few weeks or months, then things return to normal, then at the next Olympics the cycle starts over.

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  8. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: I share @Sleeping Dog:’s sentiment. Not as a criticism of you or your choice of subject matter, but as a reaction to the whole corrupt IOC, money losing plague Olympics in a country that didn’t want it, condoms and cardboard beds, national prestige through “amateur” sports, gold medals for trash sports, USA!!! USA!!! thing.

    5
  9. gVOR08 says:

    I should, perhaps, add that I do follow Formula One. But it would be better if they didn’t lend prestige by running in Shanghai and Sochi. Or Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE.

    IIRC there was some discussion here of the current F1 champion, Lewis Hamilton, criticizing Orban’s LBGT policies during the Hungarian GP, and that Dreher lost his shit over it.

    2
  10. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @James Joyner:

    To be fair though, it’s a valid point. The games are close to becoming, if they aren’t already there, a piece of nostalgia which is increasingly out of touch with and of decreasing interest to the modern world. At last glance, there is a single bidder for the 2032 Summer Games (Brisbane), and there is already a great deal of discontent here about 2024.

    People see 2024 as having basically been shoved down France’s throat by policy makers without public input, and they plan to drop the Olympic Village itself dead into the poorest, most crime ridden department in the entire country – Seine-Saint-Denis (think housing projects, literal Communists in control, and riots) – which is being seen as yet another giveaway by many and is negatively affecting sentiment towards immigrants by association. Meanwhile the folks who live there are up in arms, pissed off about potential gentrification.

    The infrastructure plans have already been scaled back, and probably will be further. Where there were going to be 4 new Metro lines ready in time for the games, there will now only be one, leading to central Paris. If you’ve ever dealt with the Paris Metro, you will understand why that just exacerbates an already existing design flaw – as it exists you can’t really get from anywhere in the banlieues to anywhere in the banlieues without going into and out of central Paris. It takes forever. The net result is expected to be a whole lot of people trundling about on buses through ancient streets and yet more congestion on the BP. It doesn’t help that they have decided to use existing venues as much as possible, which has the events spread over the entire region. Equestrian events, for example, are going to be sited at Versailles. 45km / at least an hour from the Olympic Village by car on the BP, or an hour and a half on a good day, with four train changes, on public transport. What could possibly go wrong?

    Net result – few are actually happy about the situation, and most of the people I’ve spoken with who live here (including us) are actively making plans to be somewhere else & just avoid the whole mess entirely.

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  11. wr says:

    It becomes harder and harder not to look at the IOC as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association of international sports. Maybe China could just shovel some money directly at their executives and the medal count could be adjusted — certainly the IOC could decide that Taiwan is actually part of China, so their medals go to Beijing.

    The incredibly frustrating thing about the Olympics is the contrast between all these amazing young people who have dedicated their lives and bodies to being the best in the world at something and the sleazeballs who run the events where they fight to prove it…

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  12. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @gVOR08:

    gold medals for trash sports

    Did you happen to catch that break dancing will officially be an Olympic sport in 2024? I suspect that Dance Dance Revolution may be next 🙄

  13. Kathy says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    There may be a solution or three.

    How about giving the games to several cities, even in different countries? This has been done in soccer world cup and other major soccer tournaments. Or make a permanent Olympic venue, ideally in a neutral(ish) country with high income and the willingness to host the games every 4 years.

    The last lets the costs of building the infrastructure be amortized over decades, and prevents expensive venues from falling into disuse almost immediately after the games. It would also work with, say, three or four permanent venues, rotating the games between them.

    Maybe some smaller events could be awarded to other countries as well, to keep hosting the games at a different place for a more reasonable cost.

    Some venues can be reused in the ordinary course of events in most countries. Others can’t. It does make little sense to invest millions on them if they’l be only used once (shades of space travel and reusable boosters).

    I’m sure there are plenty of downsides to all the above ideas.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08: @HarvardLaw92:Oh, there are definitely critiques to be had of the games. I care much less about them than I did during the Cold War and I must admit that nationalizing the achievements of individual athletes is rather odd. Add in the rank cheating and corruption, and it’s much worse.

    1
  15. Scott F. says:

    Most countries are eager for Olympic glory.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if “national glory” accrued to those countries with the greatest achievements in lowering infant mortality rates or Gini coefficients? What if best scores for income mobility, or happiness, or energy efficiency, or charitable giving came with big medals awarded with great pomp in front of large audiences?

    I’m sure we could find a way to put the ceremonies on TV. We could play the national anthem when the medal is awarded.

    3
  16. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Kathy:

    I’d be all for it. The trouble would be finding a country willing to accept such a permanent installation without the burden of having to pay for it itself, I think.

    The newer trend seems to be temporary facilities which can be dismantled and recycled once the games conclude. They’re supposedly planning several of those here (including a gigantic one dead in the middle of the Champ de Mars, which people are also upset about). The Olympic Village itself is intended to be permanent and is slated after the games to become (wait for it) yet another enormous public housing project in a department which is already essentially covered with them. It’s a boondoggle of corruption and things few people actually want that policy makers are ramming through by using the games as an excuse / rationale for stuff they couldn’t get approved any other way.

    2
  17. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.: The countries with the least income inequality are also the poorest countries. I’m not aware of a comparable metric that measures standard of living but it would be more useful.

  18. Michael Cain says:

    @drj:

    I can’t find any specific figures, but I very, very strongly suspect that the US spent far more than any other participating country.

    Selectively.

    For several years I was on the executive committee for the Colorado Division of USA Fencing. USA Fencing is the national governing body for Olympic fencing in the US and is also the FIE affiliate for other international fencing. The Olympic training center in Colorado Springs is the training home for fencing. When the USOC was going to run a women’s fencing clinic there, they called the Division to ask if we had scoring equipment that they could borrow, because they’re not sufficiently funded to maintain enough equipment to conduct a clinic.

    3
  19. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    The comment wasn’t aimed at you choice to write on it. True, I don’t have to read every post, but I look for an interesting perspective.

    1
  20. inhumans99 says:

    Kathy’s post reminds me of this, that it has been discussed fairly recently in the past, why do we not just give the Olympics to Los Angeles, which has the infrastructure already in place and can handle the financial burden? Even the Winter Olympics can be tossed to our neighboring states that actually get snow even as we deal with Global Warming (I am thinking Utah/Colorado).

    This way countries and locations in places like Australia, China, Germany, France, Italy, the U.K., Russia (assuming they are allowed to play), etc., get to enjoy the glory of their athletes taking home medals and boosting National Pride while shouldering none of the burdensome costs of hosting a safe Olympic Village, making sure existing venues are still in good shape to host an event, and most expensive of all not having to worry about building entirely new facilities or upgrading existing roads so they can handle the increased traffic.

    It is looking increasingly likely in the near future that many countries will be less likely to be ticked-off if they are not chosen to host the Olympics.

    The Olympics still have their place in the Pantheon of Sports competitions, however, yes, there was a time the Olympics was appointment viewing but now I am more likely to catch up on a recorded Hallmark film on a Sunday afternoon than I am in catching up on the events being held in the Olympic games. Somewhat sad, but also a function of so much more to watch than was even available to me 12-16 years back (in just the past few years we have seen Disney+, Apple TV, and HBO Max come into play, not to mention the rebranded CBS All Access streamer, Amazon Prime, and more, so many more choices to distract you from watching the Olympics).

  21. Sleeping Dog says:

    @gVOR08:

    I follow F1 as well, but will gladly admit that if others found it a bore, I’d understand.

  22. Kathy says:

    @Scott F.:

    Reminds me a bit of Profession . Nice story, but terrible methods.

  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    @inhumans99:

    why do we not just give the Olympics to Los Angeles

    I believe I speak for my fellow Angelenos when I say: no. One word explanation: traffic.

    2
  24. sam says:

    Rooted in the Soviet model

    From what I’ve read, their military is too, with political “officers” embedded in all units, including subs.

    About LA and the Olympics. They were held in LA in 1932 (hence, the Colosseum). My dad went to LA to see them, and liked the city so much he stayed. Yay Olympics!

  25. Kathy says:

    @inhumans99:

    It would be best to pick a non-controversial country with good or neutral relations with most other countries. Think all of Scandinavia, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Spain Canada, Mexico.

    I wouldn’t expect a repeat of the 80-84 mutual boycott, but the big powers should be left out, because then they can’t use the Olympics as more than a showcase for their athletic achievements.

    1
  26. EddieInCA says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I was here in LA for the 1984 Olympics. Everyone, myself included, waited for the invariable traffic snarls.

    It didn’t materialize.

    The city planners did an amazing job of turning many, many boulevards into one way streets. They added a second level to LAX. They ramped up public transportation to the venues and events. They spread out the events over 100 miles from Castaic (Whitewater Rafting) to Mission Viejo (Cycling Road Race). In between, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Long Beach, Compton/Dominguez Hills, and many other venues were used, so it was very, very spread out.

    I was working at ABC Television back then, who covered the games, and I went to an event daily, as my department oversaw still photography for the games. I went to 32 different events featuring 22 different sports – including Diving, Swimming, Track and Field, Basketball, Team Handball, Wrestling.

    The bad traffic never happened. Alot of people used public transportation, and worked remotely quite a bit during those two weeks.

    4
  27. dazedandconfused says:

    It’s interesting that the Chinese public appears to be rather meh on the project, the central government is the primary driver. Rising powers tend towards nationalism, but the indication is Chinese nationalism is top-down, not bottom-up. An internal check on the dreams of international grandeur running around in the top leadership?

    1
  28. Raoul says:

    Even though I think these Olympics exceeded expectations and I personally enjoyed them, there is no doubt that the model of finding a hosting city is becoming more unyielding. So here is my idea, find three host cities in the Americas, Europe and Asia and have them rotate the Olympics. LA and Athens have always seem receptive, somewhere in Australia would be me my guess for Asia.

  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Scott F.: While they’re not contests in the same sense as the Olympics, we already know that the US is not making gold metal level achievement is areas such as infant mortality, educational achievement, social mobility, affordability of health care, and many other measures. A cynical sort might even note that the US and former Soviet Union both seemed determined to distract their societies by substituting ephemeral Olympic “glory” for longer term achievements. Now China has joined the party. Laissez les bons temps roullez.

  30. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Kathy:

    I don’t really give a damn. But every four years, there’s much complain in the press about the poor showing of Mexico’s athletes, and calls for more money to be invested in them.

    In Brazil the medal count improved a lot with government programs, both in the federal and municipal level(Brazilian municipalities spend a lot of money with sports like volleyball and basketball). The other success stories with sports in LatAm(Tennis in Argentina and cycling in Colombia) also involve government support at some level.

  31. MarkedMan says:

    Amongst my middle class colleagues in Shanghai I got the impression that sports was for adults, and definitely not for children. Reading between the lines I think they were worried that if their one child showed any promise there would be tremendous pressure to enroll the child into a state training athletic training program. And that, in turn, essentially the end of education. No education, no good job.

    1
  32. Kathy says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    Undoubtedly. the issue in Mexico is that the passion for investing in sports lasts only a few weeks, two months tops, after the summer games. Then it gets forgotten until the next time. So no one ever does anything.

    1
  33. de stijl says:

    If there is a place on earth dedicated to hosting the Olympic games it must be in Olympia in Elis Greece. Tradition demands it. Build out permanent infrastructure.

    Summer games for certain. Winter games get more dicey. I would opt for somewhere in the Alps. It is the epicenter. Maybe Norway.

  34. Slugger says:

    I greatly enjoyed the Olympics. My best moments were the American bronze in the women’s marathon, Italy’s victory in the hundred meters, and Suni Lee picking up the sword of our fallen champion and achieving glory! Unexpected achievements all, and so much fun!

    1
  35. de stijl says:

    I love the more obscure events. On random NBC owned channels aired at 3 AM with commentators who know jack diddly squat about the subject at hand.

    1
  36. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Kathy: I think that Mexican soccer is very promising, let’s see. Even if the problem is lack of good competition in the Americas.

  37. DrDaveT says:

    The US can hardly throw stones when it comes to jingoism, pouring money into medal farming, blurring the lines between amateur and professional sports, etc.

    As I’ve said before, I’m all in for the individual objective sports — citius, altius, fortius — and the ongoing expansion of human performance. I’d also love to see more _athlon combinations, rewarding versatility and range of skills. Eliminate all sports that require judges to assign scores. Eliminate all team sports, which are merely vehicles for jingoism. Celebrate the first ever medalist from Phillipines, or Tonga, or Liechtenstein. Stop caring which nation won the most golds, or the most medals.

    …yeah, I know. But it’s a nice daydream.

    3