China has been known for its pursuit of gold medals since its re-entry into the Olympics in 1980. But is China’s gold-or-bust attitude shifting? Although there is still a way to go, things are slowly changing for the better, Rebecca Zhong writes.
“I was really that fast? I’m really happy with that!”
Fu Yuanhui was visibly thrilled and beaming when a CCTV reporter informed her that she’d placed third and qualified for the women’s 100m backstroke final at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Her enthusiasm broke away from conventional responses given by Chinese athletes, which, for the most part, consist of thanking the country and promising to do their best.
When asked whether she had any expectations for the final race, Fu replied candidly, “Nope! I’m really happy with what I did today!” Her excitement at her own success—she had also swum a personal best that day—made for a memorable highlight of the 2016 Rio games.
Jiayang Fan, a writer for the New Yorker, remarked at the time that perhaps Fu’s hyperbolic reaction would not have been as much of a sensation had she been an athlete competing for another country.
In a nation with a pervasive ‘gold or nothing’ attitude towards the Olympics, coupled with an attachment of national duty to personal achievements, Fu helped shine a light on something valuable, and still much-needed in the world of Chinese elite sport. The force of her personality gave the impression that her experiences and aspirations were her own, something which China’s elite sporting institutions leave limited room for.
Since re-entering the Olympics in 1980, China’s drive for success on the world stage has been highly politicised. Winning gold is a way to accumulate national prestige, and strong performances help to build national confidence. As deputy head of the Chinese Olympic delegation Xiao Tian admitted after the 2012 London games, government officials often face public pressure to answer for the performance of athletes.
For the athletes, the pressure for gold is backed by the possibility of disappointing 1.4 billion people at home. Gold means recognition at home and generous payments from the government, while those unfortunate enough to achieve a silver or bronze tend to remain in obscurity.
Coaches and athletes have gone to great lengths to achieve desired results, from doping to training programs which take up much of a promising athlete’s early life.
The end to systematic, state-sanctioned doping of Chinese athletes of the 1980s and 1990s came about as international pressure and anti-doping rules weighed down on the system. However, unlike doping, China’s elite sporting structure has been more resistant to change.
Elite athletes are absorbed into the Juguo Tizhi (literally ‘whole nation system’), a monolithic complex of sporting institutions, from an early age. Children are moved into sports schools, sometimes from sports kindergartens, and are subject to harsh training regimes away from home which take up a majority of their day-to-day lives.
Unfortunately, opportunities to gain an education or develop in other areas are scarce to non-existent within these institutions. Sheng Maowu, principal of the Shanghai Sports School, acknowledges the prevailing view of the making of a champion: “[If] you want to be a world champion you cannot study.” He goes on: “This belief is wrong … and at the end of the day very few become champions.”
The tendency to place achievements above and beyond the individual competitors imposes a steep price on athletes, a price that has become too onerous in the eyes of many parents. Recent years have seen a decline in enrolments into sports schools, especially as China’s growing middle class place their hopes elsewhere.
This has prompted schools like the one run by Sheng to shift some of its focus towards ensuring that its students receive an education. State policy aimed at improving education and support for retired athletes was officially implemented in 2010. Meanwhile, athletes like former speed-skater Yang Yang work to support retired athletes in their post-Olympic lives through her Champion Foundation.
For now, the all-or-nothing mentality and state control survive as athletes and coaches commence their preparation for the 2020 Summer games in Tokyo, and the 2022 Winter games, at home in Beijing.
The Chinese team performed strongly at the 2018 Asian games, placing China firmly at the top of the medal tally. Its performance in the PyeongChang Winter Games earlier in the year was far more modest, despite setting its best foot forward with its largest-ever delegation, which included a nascent skeleton and bob-sledding team formed in 2016.
Former skeleton competitor Jeff Pain, who was contracted by the state sports administration after the 2015 election of Beijing as the host of the 2022 winter games, was reportedly told that“it’s gold or nothing. The other medals are irrelevant.” Pain’s experience serves as a reminder that coaches and athletes are still beholden to the state’s project of pushing for gold first and foremost, even in sports which have little grounding in China.
This mentality has been decades in the making. It will not disappear overnight. But figures such as Fu Yuanhui are part of a generation capable of changing the narrative of what it means to be an elite athlete in China, alongside growing pressures for reform as the system appears increasingly restrictive and outdated.
Fu is just one athlete among many, but her popularity as a bronze medallist was unprecedented. In the words of sportswriter Mark Dreyer, Chinese athletes like her are moving away from the ‘manufactured Olympic champions’ towards individuals who inspire devotion from fans, especially in a world where social media presence has become a major part of people’s lives.
Shifts in attitudes towards sport, success and personal development, along with reforms of the Chinese elite sports structure are emerging. There is a belief in the value of celebrating the personal challenges and achievements of athletes, and there are growing calls from within the system itself for a more holistic approach to the development of China’s elite athletes. That which glitters in the Olympics is a great deal more than gold—something China is currently in the process of learning.