Chinese attitudes to sport, riddled with paradox?

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.

liu-xiang.jpg
The photogenic Liu Xiang

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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.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

Hmm, “pride”, “face”. Hate to admit it, but have to agree. Got so annoyed with the sports commentators during the World Athletics championships who were bemoaning the fact that China hadn’t got enough medals. “Do you have to be the world leaders in every single sporting event before you can feel good about yourselves? For crying out loud, can’t you just be proud of the achievements currently made by Chinese athletes and leave some sports for ‘our’ rest-of-the-world to excel in?”

October 31, 2005 @ 12:41 am | Comment

The olympics has always been about blind nationalism and international vanity hasn’t it?

Every four years people suddenly develop a massive interest in a set of sports they’d probably never even heard of before – in which coincidentally their nation has a medal chance – and then lose interest in it a week later. I must admit I’ve never really understood everyone’s obsession with the Olympics.

The Olympics and China seem to me to be a perfect fit …

October 31, 2005 @ 1:04 am | Comment

Do you really need us to answer ‘no’ on behalf of the Middle Kingdom/glorious Han Chinese race?

October 31, 2005 @ 1:04 am | Comment

Speaking of Chinese athletes, have you read the really sordid stories about how some of them behaved at the national games recently? Shocking. I mean, we all know some athletes will take steroids and do all they can to win. But it sounded like some of these guys were ready to knife one another in public to gain a yard.

October 31, 2005 @ 1:22 am | Comment

Richard’s right – these games were a disgrace. Disqualifications, cheating, corruption, rigged races. It was a display of the very worst of sport.

October 31, 2005 @ 2:23 am | Comment

The guy who wrote that article hasn’t any clue at leasst of football in China. The reason why the people don’t go to see the football games any more is not because they are not interested but because the league is corrupt to the core. In contrary I met a lot of Chinese who are big football fans but are just boycoting theire leagues because it’s no fun to see faked games.

Bad journalism I would say.

October 31, 2005 @ 2:47 am | Comment

Shulan has a point about the football league. Everybody in China knew it was a sham. I think Joe Bosco’s WOW even did an article on it. I’d also point out that Chinese National Games are a total holdover from earlier days. For anyone who says there no appetite for sports in China, I’d point out that I had tons of students whose English names were Iverson, Kobe, Sprewell, etc. The young’uns truly appreciate basketball – much like we did growing up in NYC.

October 31, 2005 @ 2:56 am | Comment

Another criticism has surfaced from GE about the Olympics bidding process:

http://tinyurl.com/8rlk5

“foreign criticisms are directed at the often close relationship between Chinese business and government and the resulting disregard for regulation and standard practices.”

That’s not good for China’s Olympic rep either.

October 31, 2005 @ 3:02 am | Comment

Further to Shulan’s above comments, I used to go to watch Beijing Guoan a few years ago. The Chinese football stadiums aren’t full because the football being played is simply awful. After all, China hasn’t had pro football for all that long so the China league is still in it’s infancy.

However, I’ve met taxi drivers who know more about the English Premier League than I do – and I’m a big fan. The English Premier as well as the European leagues have a huge following here – because the football is good.

I also agree with Shulan’s comments re corruption in the Chinese game. This factor has turned off potential fans in a very big way.

October 31, 2005 @ 4:10 am | Comment

Who says Chinese don’t like sport? Badmington, basketball, ping pong, tennis and golf for the noveau riche … and all those early morning joggers. It’s just that not many Chinese are keen on western sports like soccer, athletics etc. And for the younger generation there’s little sense that sport is good for you or character building – the attitude from their parents is that it’s just a distraction from doing your homework or making some money.
And as for these grandiose stadiums – have you ever seen the Beijing Olympic swimming and gymnatic stadiums up close? They are shoddily built and falling apart. Reminds me of the new Beijing railway station – all grandiose “face”, but not actually very useful as a station.

October 31, 2005 @ 4:40 am | Comment

One word. Face

October 31, 2005 @ 4:53 am | Comment

Same experience here – soccer/football and American basketball are really popular, especially among young guys. You could figure this out just by counting the Beckham-inspired haircuts.

Last week I had a guy explain in class why basketball was his favorite sport – part of the answer was that “you looked cool playing it”. Yeah!

Imagine the effect on attitudes toward the US if 10% of the cost of the invasion of Iraq had been put into promoting American basketball abroad. Secondary payoff: great racism antidote.

October 31, 2005 @ 10:39 am | Comment

Brings back memories of the Beida basketball team I was privileged to play on as an American back in the mid 1980s. Many great memories and friendships. Specifically:

1. Our coach had learned basketball from US GIs stationed in China in WWII. in the 1940s.

2. At the end of each game/tournament they announced a “Wen Ming Dui” which was basically a “Good Sportsmans Team.” As I was known for a pretty aggressive playing style (I like to think I introduced Beijing to the proper use of elbows while rebounding), I was never named to the Wen Ming Dui. And I always copped an attitude about it!!!

October 31, 2005 @ 12:12 pm | Comment

Obviously, China is expecting the 2008 Olympics to be their moment in the sun, to showcase to the world and themselves that they are a world power now. If China comes off as a major winner at the Olympics, the CCP will benefit enormously in terms of public support. But what will it mean for the CCP if they fail to do that? Winning is already too important for them to leave to chance. My worry is that they may find it too important to leave to natural ability as well. If the National Games was anything to go by, the IOC will need a very sophisticated drug testing regime for 2008.

October 31, 2005 @ 1:52 pm | Comment

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