Sport, Talking Point

Less golden for China?

Can London best Beijing? And will the Chinese team win most golds again?

Less golden for China?

Heroic hurdler: China’s big hope is that Liu Xiang is victorious in the 110-metre hurdles which he won in 2004

The last time that the Olympics were held in Britain the country was in a grim economic condition. And it rained a lot.

Sound familiar? As the Games return to London for the first time since 1948, the economic mood is downbeat once more, even if things are not quite as austere as they were in post-war Britain.

The rain, on the other hand, has been relentless, making for one of the wettest summers ever.

Of course, back in 1948, rationing was still in force so overseas athletes brought their own food, including the Chinese team, which turned up with bags of bamboo shoots. Today, London’s culinary resources are a little less stretched but the Chinese are still bringing their own supplies with them, reports Xinhua, as well as all the pots, pans and pressure-cookers needed to prepare their own meals.

But at least one major difference is expected for London 2012. In 1948, the China team didn’t win a single medal. This year the Chinese will be aiming to top the medal table.

What else can we expect from the fortnight ahead?

A tale of two cities…

Tonight’s opening ceremony in London promises to be an interesting contrast to Beijing’s awe-inspiring effort four years ago, which saw massed ranks of participants thunder away on drums and move together in perfect step.

Much of the action was a celebration of the power and prowess of imperial China, as well as a showcase for the inventiveness of Chinese culture.

But if the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper is correct, London’s curtain-lifter will do things differently, over three main acts that seek to demonstrate the British character.

In the first, the audience will be treated to a rural landscape dotted with cows and sheep, horse-drawn ploughs, milkmaids and even a village cricket team (from Edwardian times) in caps and braces. This unlikely idyll will be topped off with some frenzied dancing around a maypole.

Quite what the Chinese will make of this cultural dystopia is best left to the imagination.

Fortunately, they might feel a little more at home in act two, as the scene transforms into the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s Jerusalem. In a grimy, industrial landscape, the performers will be dressed as weavers, miners and steel workers, commemorating an era in which Britain was workshop of the world. Of course, that’s a title that China now lays claim to itself.

But it will be the third and final act that might have Chinese onlookers scratching their heads the most. Apparently, it will be devoted to the multicultural face of post-war Britain, with references to times of upheaval, including protest marches and industrial disputes.

Here, the Chinese could be forgiven a little confusion, especially when such a massive effort went into ensuring that nothing unpleasant came up for debate during Beijing’s own hosting of the Games.

Four years on, however, and the British seem to be going out of their way to celebrate their own history of discord and disagreement (and on the opening night, no less). Could this be London having a little fun at Chinese expense, knowing that Beijing’s ceremonial spectacular can’t be matched in scale, budget or ambition (and bested only in irony)?

So the Chinese don’t see London as in the same league as Beijing 2008?

Not really: the People’s Daily wrote modestly this week that the “Beijing Olympic games were widely regarded as the best ever”.

Certainly, the Chinese hold a different perspective to the Brits on how best to host an Olympics. The first signs of that came in the closing ceremony four years ago, when the Chinese were unimpressed with a rather lame British contribution, including some disjointed dancing around a replica London bus.

“During the performance, when the bus pulled over, all the passengers awaiting it rushed to the door at the same time, which truly damaged the British image,” Titan Sports Daily complained at the time, presumably in reference to the UK’s fine reputation for orderly queueing.

Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, then annoyed his hosts by turning up in a conspicuously unbuttoned jacket, grasping the Olympic flag in one hand but with the other apparently wedged in his pocket.

“Unlike the Chinese custom which tends not to reveal their weakness to outsiders, the British seem to like to laugh about their stupidity in a funny way,” was the weary (but not entirely inaccurate) reproach from Titan.

Others have been questioning London’s prospects for dazzling the world this month, including Globe magazine, which warns of “fundamental problems” such as “the terrorist threat”, “chronic traffic jams” and “food safety fears” (that last one seems harsh, given China’s own track record).

But the primary worry for the next two weeks – and not just for the Chinese, it has to be said – is the British weather.

For Sina Sports in particular, the likelihood of a cold, wet August has been dispiriting, as it had been looking forward to seeing “a lot of beautiful women wearing bikinis” in the beach volleyball. But this year it looks like shorts and T-shirts might have to be worn, because of the inclement weather. This “eternal topic of the British” (the weather) is beyond the control of the authorities, Sina admits, so the best the London organisers can do is make sure that there are enough umbrellas on sale.

And don’t mention politics, either…

Although Chinese interest in this Olympics isn’t quite as feverish as when Beijing was host, there is still widespread interest from a nation that refused to compete for the 32 years before 1984, in protest at the participation of Taiwan.

Today, most of the debate is about how many medals the team will win, with most of the media finding time to mention that China got more golds (51) four years ago than any other nation. That was 15 more than the Americans, although the United States team won more medals in total.

Still, coming out top in the gold medal table was a genuine patriotic boost in 2008, just as hosting the Games was regarded as indelible evidence of China’s new international status. Both served as a counterbalance to China’s (still raw) inferiority complex about the ‘humiliating’ 19th century era when it lost the Opium Wars and saw its sovereignty infringed by foreign powers. So you can read more than sport into the message delivered by Politburo senior and propaganda head Li Changchun when he instructed the Olympic team in early July to “provoke patriotism in the hearts of Chinese people by excellent achievements”.

Roughly parsed: the more golds you win the better it reflects our rising superpower status.

But it seems that the website might be a high-minded outlier in this regard, as it has been recommending that the Chinese push back against the “Gold-Medal-Takes-All” mentality. The main problem with this approach, it complains, is that the Americans haven’t been responding in the same spirit. For one thing they’ve shown hostility towards the Made in China uniforms being worn by the US team (Xinhua called this “blasphemous” in Olympic terms last week). And there are also complaints that Larry Probst, chairman of the US Olympic Committee, has been too provocative in urging the American team back to top of the medals table.

This is all very shortsighted, as far as is concerned, as “sport has nothing to do with politics”.

Unfortunately, the website then seems to undermine its point by fretting that – because the British have long been “a servant of the Americans” – London will feel like the “second home of Uncle Sam”, delivering important home advantage.

Advantage or not, the Wall Street Journal claims to have come up with a foolproof predictive formula that indicates “the Star-spangled Banner will once again play more than any other anthem”.

The newspaper is forecasting 40 golds for the US and 38 for China (as well as 108 overall medals to America versus 92 for the Chinese).

Doesn’t the Chinese government invest heavily in elite sport?

This is a topic that WiC has written about before (from WiC14 onwards) but it has been getting more coverage in the international press in the lead up to the Games.

Often there’s a fairly negative spin on the state-funded system. For instance, Hannah Beech, writing in TIME magazine this week, says that the punishing training regimen means that sport is more of a living than a passion for most Chinese athletes. Few show much enthusiasm when asked about competing, having been absorbed into an all-encompassing life at a young age in which they must devote themselves to sporting glory for the nation.

“You want to know why China is so good at women’s weightlifting?” Xu Jingfa, the national coach, told Beech. “It’s simple. We do everything together, and we work harder than everyone else. What time to wake up, what time to sleep, how to train, what to eat, how to think – it’s all set by our team leaders.”

There was a similar theme from Joshua Keating in Foreign Policy magazine this month, in an article looking at how authoritarian regimes have delivered sporting triumph. In the past it was the Soviet Union and East Germany which had the success in focusing resources on an elite group of athletes and then demanding total dedication to achieving gold. Even today, Cuba punches well above its weight in the medals table too.

But it’s not just the Communists who want to outcompete the rest, says Keating. Another nation that looked to the former Soviet Bloc for inspiration is Australia, following a disastrous 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where it failed to win a single gold. The situation was made worse by the New Zealanders winning two golds, Keating says, and the Australian prime minister was then booed by athletes who felt they hadn’t been given enough support.

But the trauma led to the funding of the Australian Institute of Sport, which has since provided a centralised training programme across a variety of disciplines. As a result, the Australians have won the most medals in per capita terms over the last three Olympics.

The British have been trying something similar in the run up to London 2012, spending about $160 million a year on UK Sport, their own high-performance scheme.

But there’s little denying that the Chinese have done more than most to target Olympic success on a national scale, and that their ambitions stretch beyond the sporting stage. TIME magazine’s Beech says their strategy has been to choose less popular sports contested by fewer countries in disciplines that promise multiple medals. Additionally, there’s a focus on women, whose training is often underfunded in other countries.

Women’s weightlifting is a case in point. In 1996, news reached the Chinese sporting authorities that it would be added to the Sydney Games, offering four new gold medal chances. So the system went into overdrive, filtering hundreds of potential competitors from China’s countryside into an elite group and then training them intensively.

“We saw an opportunity and we broke the sport down very scientifically into the smallest components,” says coach Xu. “No country can compare with us.”

How well will the Chinese do this time?

Back in China, there seems to be less confidence that its athletes will top the gold medal table as they did in 2008. China is sending a smaller team of 396 competitors to London, down from a record-breaking 639 who competed four years ago. Of course, it will also lose the home advantage that spurred performance in Beijing.

But the expectation is still for a series of golds in sports in which the Chinese normally do best: events like shooting, diving, gymnastics, weightlifting, table tennis and badminton.

Beyond that, there is hope that China will win other honours in a wider range of events than before. Here the context is the “Project 119“ plan, initiated in 2001 to target gold medals (119 of them, funnily enough) at Beijing 2008.

The idea was to go for gold in sports where China was traditionally weaker, such as swimming, boxing and athletics. As an analogy, it sounds like the sporting equivalent of policies designed to upgrade Chinese manufacturing from areas in which it has proved dominant – textiles, shoes, toothbrushes and the like – into industries where other countries still hold sway (such as aerospace).

In fact, the achievements in Beijing in areas like swimming and athletics were disappointing. Only a single gold medal was won in the women’s 200-metre butterfly, and just two bronze medals in track and field.

But in London the hope is for at least 10 gold medals in Project 119 events, with much of the media interest now concentrated on two of China’s best prospects in athletics and swimming.

Of the two men, the 110-metre hurdler Liu Xiang should be best known to WiC readers (we first mentioned him as far back as issue 2). Liu, who won a surprise gold in Athens in 2004, was the major hope for a home athletics gold four years ago in Beijing. But he was forced to pull out in an early heat – to stunned silence in the stadium – after picking up a mystery injury. There were more signs that Liu isn’t the most robust chap earlier this month, when he fled the UK for balmy Germany, complaining about the cold weather. But he’s now back in London and – at 29 – this must be his last chance to win another Olympic gold.

If Liu does prevail, expect his sponsor Coke to run round-the-clock congratulatory ads on Chinese TV (a rare case where American executives will be cheering their lungs out for an athlete from China). But few would envy the pressure that Liu must be feeling, with such huge expectation at home. “Fame portends trouble for men, just as fattening does for pigs” was’s rather folksy take on the situation.

Another great hope is Sun Yang, a swimmer who will compete in a series of the freestyle events. Sun won the 1,500-metre race in last year’s World Championships in Shanghai in a world record time. Now the goal is to be the first Chinese man to win Olympic gold in the pool, in a sport traditionally dominated by the Americans, says the Beijing Youth Daily.

According to Xinhua, Sun is also one of the competitors whose food is being prepared by chefs flown specially from China. He seems to have a discerning palate, with crab, turtle, cuttlefish and shrimp on the daily menu. He also consumes in bulk: his coach has been reporting proudly that Sun eats enough for four during his visits to the seafood buffet.

But again, there is a political tinge to Sun’s potential for sporting glory. The swimmer – still only 20 – has already been bestowed with Communist Party membership. “The Olympics is war without the smoke of gunfire. Fast-tracking Sun’s application to enroll in the Party will motivate him,” a Zhejiang sports official told local media, dutifully.

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