The saga of shame of the Indian Commonwealth Games continues as more and more shameful skeletons tumble out of the cupboard. And it only makes my heart cringe. More so because I believe that sports is literally one of the key routes to a healthy nation. From child health to adult health – both physical and mental – sports has a great role to play, especially in today’s day and time where children are getting addicted to videogames and to the internet. To me, personally, the Commonwealth Games event – good or bad – was in reality a great opportunity for India to develop the Indian sports scene. Instead, we found it a great opportunity to plunder more and more money. And that’s what forces me to take a look at how the Chinese used the Olympics as a great leap forward and how they have over years made sports a way of life.
Compared to the Indian games, the 2008 Beijing Olympics actually spoke volumes about China’s commitment to sports. Not only did China refurbish the entire host city to welcome the game and honour the sport at large, but it also set a new record in its medals’ tally. But what was most noteworthy was the leap that China has taken in sports over the years. This unprecedented transition in Chinese sports gets largely visible when one compares the first ever entry of the Chinese to Olympics, vis-à-vis the way they stole the show at the 2008 Olympics. In 1932, during the Los Angeles Olympics, the Chinese representation was just a lone athlete who represented 450 million Chinese and came back home empty handed. Their tryst with the first gold medal happened 52 years later, again in the same venue; and from there on, there was no turning back. And finally, in 2008, a nation which was considered an underdog in many events previously, shocked the world by topping the medals’ tally with 51 gold medals (a jump from 32 gold medals in 2004 Athens Olympics and 28 gold medals in 2000 Sydney Olympics); they were followed by the US which had just 36 gold medals! But then, this jump in the medal tally didn’t happen overnight.
China started preparing its athletes for this event even before they started their infrastructural development (unlike our preparation, where during the CWG, neither was the infrastructure ready, nor did the sportsmen have space and facilities for training). As soon as the nation won the bid for hosting the 2008 Olympics, the government announced its most ambitious sports plan called “Winning pride at the Olympics”, which defined the number of gold medals China could possibly win in different events – after analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of their athletes. The government laid down clear cut policies and strategies to target sports and the number of gold medals that China needed to win in every sports event! The country also launched Project 119 and Plan for Olympics Glory – something that is very unique and equally strategic. The project defined how China could win 119 gold medals (a figure that was later increased to 122) based on their performance in the 2000 Olympics (as the bid for 2008 was won by China in 2001). The flow of funds was never a constraint. During the Olympics, the sports budget was increased to $700 million (an increase by $300 million) along with building specialized sports infrastructure at the Qingdao City costing $30 million. Interestingly, all women sports events received huge funding and got special attention (this is rare even in the West). No wonder, China won 46 gold medals in the ladies’ events (including team and doubles) in the 2008 Olympics!
For China, the Beijing Olympics was much more than a mere sporting event. It was China’s attempt to showcase their magnanimity to the world. The architectural marvel ‘Bird’s Nest stadium’ was a stepping stone towards the same. The iconic Bird’s Nest, even months after the event, draws hundreds of local tourists to stay back and get a feel of China’s preeminence in the world of sports. In fact, the Chinese government had a tough time convincing the IOC about their bid, as the IOC was quite sceptical on account of China’s human rights issues and resulting global protests against its political backdrop and governance ideology. So once China got the opportunity, they left no stone unturned. The sporting infrastructure was just one part to showcase the Chinese dominance – the final nail on the coffin was their ultimate medals’ tally, which literally shut every critic. Not only did they top the medals’ tally, but their athletes also broke several world records.
In fact, what made the Chinese achieve the unachievable is not just the result of targeted hard work but more on account of the basic orientation that every Chinese gets from the age of four. The Chinese government has pumped in enormous amounts of money into sports clubs and schools that are engineered to train kids in various kinds of sports. In Li Xiaoshuang Gymnastics School, for example, hundreds of students (between the ages of 4 to 10) are coached by seasoned trainers. This school boasts of producing several Olympic gold medalists as well. The staff here is recruited by the government’s General Administration of Sports and plays a pivotal role in choosing and identifying future stars. The system of selecting world-class sportsmen is very logically structured and is bereft of any nepotism and politics. Schools and sports training centers across China train millions of kids in different forms of sports from where stars are selected for professional provincial teams; and the best of all graduate to the national teams. These students undergo the most challenging (read brutal) conditions while training and that is probably the reason that they excel in most sports. Moreover, unlike in our country – where sportsmen are found selling medals and certificates for survival – the future of all these sportsmen is secured by including their names in the government’s payroll.
All sportsmen are on government salaries. As a matter of fact, the lifestyle of sportsmen in China is even better than that of their Western counterparts who mainly rely on scholarships and jobs for getting trained. In China, the story is completely different. The cost of training is borne by the government itself. The sport training institutes also take care of the psychological wellbeing of the Chinese sportsmen – something that is missing in most of the nations or comes at an additional cost. The Li Xiaoshuang Gymnastics School received a funding of $14 million over the last one decade which boils down to $1.4 million per year; and here we are talking about one such school. Going by estimates calculated by the director of the Institute of Physical Science, the Chinese government spends a staggering $7 million behind one single Olympics gold medal. This is evident from the fact that the government had kept all their resources and plans concentrated on preparing sportsmen for the Beijing Olympics prior to the Beijing Olympics games. At any point of time, more than 11,000 schools all across China train more than 6 million students in various sports at the elementary level, a pool from which around 500,000 are promoted and sent to any of the 3000 specialized sports schools. Out of these 500,000 sports trainees, around 50,000 are selected and trained at 300 senior training institutes.
However, I must here admit that in China, the training sometimes does get very harsh. Students undergo training for more than seven hours a day and under very stringent and strict guidance. So much so that outstation students are not allowed to visit their families during training sessions. Students are rarely given an option to choose their sports but are forced to practice the one which coaches and trainers perceive to be apt for them. But then, to address these loopholes, the National Sports Minister, Liu Peng, at the recent national work conference on protection of athletes announced a new plan that aims at improving career development, career transition and work atmosphere of Chinese athletes. The sports ministry has also drafted policies to facilitate a smoother career transition for retired athletes.
As of 2010, around 16 Chinese sportsmen were earning more than five million yuan (around $800,000) with Yao Ming leading the charts with 141.7 million yuan ($22 million). The total earnings of Yao Ming (including sponsorships) are estimated to be 250 million yuan ($39 million) per year. Even sportsmen like Liu Xiang, Guo Jingjing, Sun Jihai and Shao Jiayi earns around 70 million yuan, 15 million yuan, 10 million yuan and 6 million yuan respectively. And mind you, all these sportsmen hail from different sports, unlike India, where only cricketers are endowed with such impressive bank balances!
The sports infrastructure development in China didn’t stop at the Beijing Olympics, but extended beyond it. It would be more apt to state that the Chinese government gave infrastructure to their sportsmen on a platter, whenever and wherever they needed. Beijing alone has more than 25 sports venues which satisfy the requirements for all kinds of sports. Many more sports venues are scattered all across the nation and all major cities provide arenas for all possible kind of games. There are more than 200 state-of-the-art sports centers in China that not only produce some of the world’s best athletes but generate huge economies too. China now boasts of having more than 50 multipurpose sports stadiums and more than 10 motorsports venues. The economies thus generated is evident from the fact that the biggest stadium (Shanghai International Circuit) has a seating capacity of more than 200,000 people, while three of the next biggest stadiums can accommodate around 80,000 spectators each; and around 50 other stadiums can seat more than 50,000 spectators.
These stadiums and training modules are not just confined to or reserved for seasoned athletes and ambitious sportsmen. The government has had bigger and wider plans – a vision for a healthy nation wherein citizens acknowledge the value of sports. This August, millions of Chinese participated and celebrated an initiative that the Chinese government had started three years back – the national fitness day. A recent Women’s Health Survey by Tianjin Women’s Sports Association and Tianjin Sports University revealed that around 55% of all women surveyed are willing to attend fitness classes. The National Fitness Plan was drafted way back in 1995 with an aim to improve the health of people. It was meant to motivate citizens to practice one sport every day and get themselves physically checked every year. In the quest of achieving this target, China opened more than 850,000 gymnasiums and stadiums for public – most of them are free. This has subsequently made people more open to sports and also made children experts in different game forms of their volition and passion. Most of the residential communities are fitted with fitness infrastructure that allows people to practice sports in the vicinity of their residence. The increase in life expectancy over the years is a direct result of this fitness program and today, most of the citizens are learning non-conventional sports too.
In this year’s national fitness day that was held last month, more than 10,000 people played chess games in Shanxi University to celebrate the occasion and more than 1,000 people participated in the body-building show in Anhui province; this is besides the marathons and sports promotions events that took place all across the nation. The 2011 national physical condition survey conducted by the State General Administration of Sport showed that there has been an increase of 1.7 per cent in the number of people who met the national fitness standard since 2005. All in all, sports in China today is not only seen as a career option but as a matter of lifestyle!
Apart from Olympics, China also hosted the Asian Games in 2010 in Guangzhou – this was the second time that the games were hosted in the country, after Beijing in 1990. Guangzhou won the bid against competing cities like Seoul, Amman, and Kuala Lumpur – after an inspection by then Vice President of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which finally awarded the games to Guangzhou in 2004. It was another portrayal of Chinese accomplishments, as Guangzhou went in for a complete renovation. Infrastructural facelifts spruced up the city – installing new subway lines, improving other forms of transport, new water treatment facilities, and building state of the art urban areas, nothing was left untouched. According to the mayor of the city, the authorities invested $18 billion preparing for the games and are estimated to have reaped five times the amount out of this investment!
One of the reasons behind the success of Beijing Olympics – apart from immaculate planning and execution for years, determination and patriotism – has been China’s ability to attract the best coaches from across the world to provide the most superlative training to its sportsmen. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as many as 38 foreign coaches were appointed from 16 countries for coaching 17 sports teams! Christian Bauer was the pick of the overseas coaches, coaching the Chinese fencing team. Under him, the Chinese won the gold in fencing after 24 years of Olympics effort. Another super-coach and harbinger of success was South Korean Jin Chang Bo whose training transformed the women’s hockey team from being a laggard to a team that reached the final match at the event. This may seem like rudimentary stereotyping, but conventionally, the short structure and short height of the Chinese people doesn’t portend well for them in competitive sports, especially in events like swimming where the height is one major factor – yet, under the guidance and training from Australian Denis Cotterell, young Zhang Lin (after being trained by Denis for several months in Australia) came out as the silver medalist in the men’s 400 metres free style. Some other international coaches to have served Chinese sports before and since Beijing Olympics have been Jim Lefebvre of United States for baseball, Jonas Kazlauskas of Lithuania for men’s basketball, Igor Grinko of Russia for rowing, Masayo Imura of Japan for synchronized swimming and Tom Maher of Australia for women’s basketball. All of them are reputed coaches and all of them met with resounding success with the Chinese teams.
As I mentioned, the Chinese association with foreign coaches extended beyond the 2008 games and most of them are still coaching Chinese players for upcoming international events, including the London Olympics! In the past, under Canadian coach Dustin Wilson, Chinese freestyle aerialist Han Xiaopeng won the gold in Winter Olympics 2006 – turning Wilson into a sports celebrity in China. The Austrian coach for speed skating has been a hit with the Chinese too. Chinese deputy chief-de-mission Cai Zhenhua reiterated the importance of foreign coaches to make China a sporting powerhouse – particularly in winter games where it is lagging behind the best! In a recently held World Athletics Championship, China’s performance was impressive with 1 gold and 2 silver medals – the credit given to the foreign coaches and the international knowhow they brought. These coaches brought the best training techniques that presaged over the local methods, to bring the best out of the athletes. In the World Athletics Championship, race walking coach Sandro Damilano of Italy, shot-put coach Kirsten Hellier and discus-throw coach Karl Heinz Steinmetz of Germany made China win accolades and medals. Steinmetz’ expertise helped Li Yanfeng win the first gold ever for China in the discus throw competition – a gold Yanfeng credited purely to Steinmetz for accomplishing the feat. Damilano’s achievement too was not less either – his critical advice and training helped Liu Hong win silver in the women’s 20 kilometer walk race. Clearly, China is leaving no stone unturned in inviting the best coaches on earth to assist their sportsmen. Their outreach for foreign coaches will continue till the London Olympics in 2012, where, according to Du Zhaocai (director of China’s Athletics Administrative Center), they have 7 to 8 important events before the main events where they would go all out for nothing less than gold!
Since the beginning, martial arts had always been the most sought after sports in China. However, with time, new and modern sports entered the mainland and the Chinese have welcomed these with open arms. So open, that today almost all sports events globally have at least one notable name that hails from China. Be it basketball (Yao Ming), table tennis (Wang Liqin), tennis (Li Na and Zheng Jie), athletics (Liu Xiang and Xing Huina), skiing (Han Xiaopeng) or volleyball (Zhao Ruirui). The country also hosts its own national games (in line with global games like Olympics) called the National Games of the People’s Republic of China.
China’s commitment towards sports goes beyond conventional methods of training. The mainland takes the entire issue as a matter of national pride and above all treats all sports equally without any prejudices. Outstandingly, the country focuses on those sports that have not reaped desirable results; and instead of ignoring and sidelining those games, provides better infrastructure and training facilities for the same. The Beijing Olympics was a case in point. Obviously, the Beijing Olympics generated huge revenues for China, but that was after China took the risk of investing billions. And mind you, such risk can only be taken by a nation which believes and is confident about returns and above all which believes in that particular genre of investment. It was the commitment and love for sports of the Chinese that made the government pump in billions for its development!
Last but not the least, Chinese players are now even infiltrating into the sphere of one-of-the most closely guarded fortes in America: the NBA championship! There is a renewed interest and passion for basketball in China – where almost a million basketball courts are being built across the country – resulting in Shanghai Sharks becoming a ubiquitous NBA team! The writing on the wall is clear – the American domination in world sports would soon be a thing of the past – as the Red Dragons are threatening to take the wind out of Uncle Sam’s sails.
That more or less sums up the massive difference between the attitudes and commitment towards sports of China and India. In China, sports is a passion, a matter of national pride, a way to healthy living practiced from childhood and a way to bring the nation laurels. In India, sports exists just to be milked by politicians to make money or show power. No wonder, the lone gold that we get once in a decade or so, becomes the highlight of the nation for years to come! In a land where one of its most revered sons, Swami Vivekananda, said long back that we go to heaven faster by playing football than by reading the Gita, it’s indeed a shame that we fight over making the reading of religious texts compulsory in schools, but don’t focus on making sports a way of life.