Behind the Gold Medal Haul

My translation of the article:-

“During the first few days of the Olympic Games, Chinese teams have been unstoppable in their grabbing of gold medals in sports events like archery and fencing except for a few let-ups, with gold medal counts already doubling those of the U.S. Not only must the U.S. teams keep the lead in swimming, they must also look to achieving a dominant position in track and field, or else they will face defeat in gold medal counts. As for Russia, once the Olympics titan, is no longer a rival for China. For this nation who was called “Asia’s sick man” half a century ago, such an achievement is of course laudable. However, if we give a closer look at the Chinese teams’ gold medals, it would help us understand the structural problem of China’s athletics.

Athletic events in the Olympics can roughly be grouped under three categories.

The first category consists of professional sports like basketball, soccer and tennis. These sports have extremely high commercial values. First-rate athletes like Yao Ming are worth tens of millions – they earn their living from the sport and are true professional athletes. These kinds of sport would have been rejected by the amateur-based Olympic Games. Although they have now stolen the spotlight, they still are not considered the mainstay of the Olympics.

The second category consists of sports like track and field and swimming. These sports are the mainstay of the Olympics and are amateur-oriented. But because of the spectator-friendly nature of these sports, their commercial values have kept rising. Each elitist athlete can amass a huge number of commercial sponsors. For example, if Phelps can get 8 gold medals, the sponsor Speedo Swimwear will give him a special bonus of US$1,000,000. Such amount of money may look insignificant when compared with what Yao Ming is getting, but for other swimming athletes who rarely have a chance to appear before an audience, it would be quite a huge fortune. Not only would such kind of fortune, on top of other forms of income, enable elitist athletes to be focused on their training, it would also buy them services of first-class coaches, doctors, nutritionists etc. In short, the sport has become a profession.

The third category consists of sports like archery, weight-lifting, boat-racing, diving, ping pong, gymnastics etc. These sports do not have commercial values in most of the countries in the world. Athletes are basically amateurs.

During the Cold War, sports became for the United States and the USSR ‘a game of face’. Countries like the USSR, East Germany and Romania used a planning approach to manage sports via a nationwide system that put in huge quantities of national resources. To combat this strategy, the United States and other Western countries selected sports that had commercial potentials and used a market approach to manage them. The outcome was that the United States could still put in a fight with the USSR and East Germany on commercialized sports like track and field and swimming, but lost out completely on sports that had no commercial potentials. In the post-Cold War era, the United States not only lost out to the USSR on gold medal counts, she also lost out to East Germany.

After the Cold War ended, as the political systems of the USSR, East Germany and Romania quickly collapsed, their rankings also slid fast on the gold medal list. But one should be able to perceive that although the rise of China has a lot to do with her becoming a great power, the more important factor is that Russia and other East European countries have abandoned economic planning and have left a vacuum behind. This vacuum is mainly in the third category of sports mentioned above. For example, in gymnastics and diving, Russia and Romania used to be ahead of China, but this is no longer the case. With these rivals gone, it is naturally easy for China to pick up gold. In women weight-lifting, China almost has no competitors because this is not a popular sport in other countries. Yet in the first two categories that are professionalized or have great commercial potentials, the United States and other Western countries still have an edge over China.

Looking at the gold medals that China has been awarded over the last few days, they were basically in the third category of sports like archery, weight-lifting, diving etc. China has trained a host of professional athletes in these sports, while their competitors are mostly amateur athletes who have to earn a living besides training for the Olympics. Naturally China should have an edge. But in soccer, basketball, track and field and swimming, Chinese athletes have not been performing as well.

In fact, China is headed towards a full market economy and as such should have innovative ways to promote athletic development. The question to ask is: if we gave up our planning approach, would we still be able to achieve such laudable results? Thus, while feeling elated about our lead in gold medal awards, we should at the same time be aware of some of our weaknesses.”