How China kept Eastern promise

What are these Games like for you and the Chinese people?

“IT means a lot for me and for the Chinese people. The dream of these Olympics has taken almost 100 years to come to fruition. For the Chinese people, these Olympics are not just about the Games or the sports. It is about creating a stage which allows China to show itself as one of the world’s superpowers.”

Can the westernisation of China be attributed to the Olympic Games?

“China began to change after the Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s. But the big change that you see now started in the 1990s when China started to bid for the Olympics. The first time that China did bid for the Games was in 1993 but they failed. They started to bid again and were successful. For the last number of years China has put a lot of money and effort to make Beijing into one of the most impressive cities in the world.”

What does China think of the Games?

“For the other countries an Olympics is just about the host city. But for China it is about the entire country. This Olympics was supported by the whole of China. In terms of change, Beijing is the one which will benefit most but other cities will change, not just because of the Olympics but because of the whole opening up and the economic reformation and also the market economy. Every place in China is changing. The Olympics is speeding that change.”

What was the old China like?

“When we grew up, China was very poor and the living standard was very low. The communication between China and the outside world hardly existed. Even today, it is so strange for me to see so many foreigners and so many western chain hotels in Beijing and other cities. We have become part of this global village. The Chinese people feel they are part of the world, and now westerners are starting to accept China as part of the world.

“There is some worry, especially for academics, that we are losing our culture but ordinary people are happy with the change as the living standard is much higher than before.”

How important is sport to China?

“When we talk about sport in China, we talk about modern sport, mainly western sport. Western sport came to China in the late 1890s and the early 20th century. It came with the western powers and the missionaries. Sport is considered a stage to show national identity and to show strong bodies and to compete with the west. This tradition has been always in Chinese sports history, a ping-pong diplomacy.”

So why specifically are the Olympics so important?

“In the 1980s the open-door policy forced open Chinese eyes and they saw clearly that their standard of living as well as their science, technology, military, education and health levels, were substantially lower than those of the Western powers. In this climate, it is no exaggeration to state that the desire to hold the Olympic Games and to win its medals was driven by the powerful requirements of national survival in the face of major internal and external threats to political and economic existence.

“The Chinese, who had lost most of the wars in the recent past, were now longing to becoming winners of any kind of wars, including the Olympics. The dominant concept for the Chinese is not “fair play”, but winning no matter at what cost! China has a tradition of enduring hardship of sacrificing individuals’ interests for the sake of the nation. Therefore, it is only natural that hundreds and thousands of unsung athletes and coaches have been ‘built’ into the ‘human ladder’ in the past 55 years to help some 100 Olympic medallists to climb to the top. This brutal system has the enthusiastic support not only of the government but also of most of the people.”

How has China become such a sporting super power in such a short space of time?

“That is because China has a special system which is basically known as the whole country support for the elite sport. The characteristics of this system is the centralisation of the management, from the national government, to the sports ministry to 22 sports management centres, with each centre managing its own sport.

“This system was officially created in 1963 when the Sports Ministry issued the ‘Regulations of Outstanding Athletes and Team’. On the instructions of the Ministry, the selection of talented young athletes took place in every province. Over the years it has developed into a well-organised and tightly structured three-level pyramid: primary, intermediate and high level. The sports schools at county, city and provincial levels formed the base of the pyramid.

“After several years’ training, about 12% of talented athletes from sports schools were selected to go on to provincial teams and become full-time athletes. From there, outstanding athletes progress to the top: the national squads and Olympic teams.”

How is sporting talent selected?

“Boys and girls between the ages of six and nine years old are identified with some talent in particular sports they join local sports schools throughout the country. They train for three hours per day and four to five times per week. After a period of hard training, the promising ones are promoted to semi-professional training: four to five hours training per day and five to six days per week.

“Before the 1990s, the sports schools, which are part of the local sports commission, provided coaching and training facilities and met all costs of training and competition. In addition, the young athletes were provided with a free meal once a day. After the 1990s, the cost is partially borne by parents. After this ‘semi-professional’ training, young people with potential are selected for the provincial sports academies or training centres.

“The young athletes live on campus and train four to six hours per day and five or six days per week. Their aim is to reach the second stage and become full-time professionals in provincial teams and eventually to reach the third stage to become members of the national squads and Olympic teams. The selection system is brutal and is the core of the whole country support for the elite sports system.

“In 2004 there were nearly 400,000 young boys and girls training at more than 3,000 sports schools throughout China. Only 5% will reach the top and 95% of these young athletes leave their sports schools with no formal primary and secondary education qualifications — only broken dreams.”

The training regimes can be quite brutal?

“In terms of training methods, the People’s Army’s training method: ‘hard, disciplined, intensive training and practice according to real battle’ was adopted in 1963. In 1964, however, a new training method was introduced. It included ‘three non-afraids’: non-afraid of hardship, difficulty and injury, and ‘five toughnesses’: toughness of spirit, body, skill, training and competition.”

Why is topping the medal table so important?

“It is the ambition this year to beat the US — in the gold medal table. China came second four years ago but as hosts, we want to win here in Beijing. For the government and the people competing, winning against the West is of huge psychological and national importance.”

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