Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee was recently in Nanjing for the 10th Chinese National Games, a domestic event held every four years. Despite the fact that Nanjing won’t host another national games for a long time nor will the city play host to Olympic events, he was faced with Chinese grandeur on a truly massive scale: “a newly built, socking great Olympic park (flame, multi-storey media centre, eight-lane access highway, the lot) of such a breathtaking scale and futuristic beauty that Athens and Sydney look like amateurs. The swimming complex is possibly the most stunning in the world.”
Sport in China and the Olympics in particular are more about “fulfilling ideology and international vanity than a genuine appetite.”
For the Chinese, this is a matter of pride. For visitors of a more western mentality and only a smattering of knowledge of poverty levels in parts of this country, the words scandal and white elephant seem more appropriate.
A westerner may assume that, at the very least, the 70,000-seat stadium may be given over to community use, but amateur sport is a concept that barely exists in Chinese culture.
Indeed, Chinese attitudes to sport are riddled with paradox. It is true that the Chinese are not great partakers in sport, but they do not appear to be great fans of it either. The professional football league here, for instance, receives such miserable attendances that the clubs struggle for financial survival. The Chinese Open tennis event recently was a desert of empty seating.
Those 70,000 seats in the main athletics stadium here are a case in point. They were nearly filled on Thursday night for the men’s 110m hurdles final. This was because Liu Xiang was running and a combination of good looks and an Olympic gold medal make Liu a hot ticket. The Chinese crowd do the celebrity thing with great gusto: they shriek when he walks into the stadium, they shriek even more when he strips off his shirt. And when he has finished his race, they all get up and leave. Thus did the stadium suddenly return to where it had been before – less than a third full – and so it would remain.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.