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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: December 6, 2010 NO. 49 DECEMBER 9, 2010
Reaching Past Medals
A new discussion on how to make China a sports power but not only on the medal tally

But success has come at a high price. Astronomical amounts of money have been poured into the system to nurture only elite athletes. During the 2004 Athens Olympics, Li Liyan, a writer and researcher with the GAS, estimated that China spent nearly 700 million yuan ($103 million) on average to win just one Olympic gold medal. For a country with a large number of poor people and vast areas with poor infrastructure, that is very costly for achieving Olympic glory.

Even worse, the yawning gap between China's popular sports, especially physical education in schools, and elite sports has resulted in the poor fitness of Chinese youth in general. According to a survey by Wu Jian, a scholar from China's National Institute of Educational Research, released earlier this year, compared with 2000, the obesity rate among Chinese children and teenagers has grown by nearly 50 percent and one out of four male school students in cities is overweight. The myopia rate among Chinese children and teenagers has jumped from 20 percent to 31 percent since 2000.

More people have begun to question whether this whole-nation regime has outlived its designed purpose after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Speaking at a summary meeting on the organization of the Olympic Games, Chinese President Hu Jintao said China should transform itself into a real sports power and achieve balanced development between competitive and popular sports.

In an interview in October 2009, the former Minister of the GAS Yuan Weimin, said now is the best time for China to conduct reforms on its whole-nation regime. "We need to switch some energy and money from competitive sports to popular sports. The era when the Chinese people needed more gold medals in sports games to prove ourselves is over," Yuan said.

According to an ongoing survey conducted by Huanqiu.com on whether China's sports development should reduce its emphasis on gold medals, about 86 percent of respondents had chosen yes by November 30.

The GAS, the center of China's highly organized whole-nation sports regime, also made some changes to China's participation in the Asian Games, such as to stop calling the Asian Games a middle-term test in China's preparation for the next Olympic Games. However, many people think these gestures to reform China's sports administrative system are too trivial and slow.

Redistribution of resources

Many long-time observers of China's sports administrative system believe the fundamental reason behind the slow progress is the lack of motivation of the GAS, which is reluctant to allocate more of its financial resources to popular sports and physical education in schools.

Wei Jizhong, former Secretary General of the Chinese Olympic Committee, was quoted by news magazine China Weekly as saying the Chinese Government supports the development of popular sports in two ways: constructing sports facilities and using a large part of the revenue from sports lotteries as expenses for popular sports activities. Wei said the problem for now is the Central Government's sound policies are not well implemented locally as the funding for developing popular sports has been used for other purposes.

Chen Peide, former head of Zhejiang Province's administration of sport, expressed the same concern in an interview on November 24.

Many observers say the GAS should also be held accountable for the low-quality physical education in China's primary and middle schools. They suggest if the GAS fails to get the job done, it should transfer some resources given by the government to China's education authorities, which will be in charge of rejuvenating physical education. "This means the GAS will have to sacrifice its interests in the redistribution of resources and might resist this idea," Yang wrote in a second article.

In an interview by China Daily in April, Zheng Yefu, a sociology professor from Peking University, suggested the GAS be cut down in size and given control of only elite sports, especially Olympics sports, and it could be renamed the "Chinese Olympic Association." Its performance should be measured not only in terms of the number of gold medals won, but also how much a gold medal costs. And its first priority should be slashing the average cost of gold medals rather than winning more.

Zheng said its responsibility for other sports should be handed over to other organizations. For example, sports with commercial potential such as soccer, basketball and tennis, should be commercialized, and communities and enterprises should be given control.

He also suggested a law prescribing the basic facilities and time needed for physical education in schools should be passed.

Huang Jianxiang, a veteran sports journalist, told International Herald Leader that the largest barrier to the reform of China's sports administrative system is that the GAS, which benefits from the current system, might use its power and resources to resist the reform.

Huang said the whole-nation regime to train athletes could be maintained for some events where China enjoys advantages, such as table tennis, badminton, shooting, weightlifting and gymnastics. Meanwhile, he said funding for other events should be spent on developing physical education in schools, thus expanding the participation base for these events.

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