Success in Rio but dominance of Chinese athletes “coming to an end”

By Tom Nguyen - originally posted to Flickr as IMG_0156, CC BY 2.0,

By Zofia Reych

As the first Chinese Olympians win medals in Rio de Janeiro, Beijing is already preparing to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in and around the capital. However, at both Rio and and future events, we might see fewer Chinese medalists than we are used to.

Drying talent pool

Chinese society is changing. The middle class continues to grow and poverty, at least in urban areas, has been almost eradicated. As education opens the door of social mobility to more and more people, fewer see athletics as a way out of hardship.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that sending children away to full-time training facilities is decreasing in popularity. Although there are generous governmental stipends for families of students enrolled in sports schools, athletic careers are usually brief and the states offers very little to retired athletes. With huge focus on training and very low levels of academic teaching, sports schools are no longer an attractive option and parents are more likely to encourage their children towards books rather than gymnastics.

95% of Chinese Olympians hail from government controlled sport schools but with every year fewer and fewer students enrol. Many institutions have closed down and the talent pool is rapidly diminishing. The coming of age of the Chinese middle class and the one child policy are both to blame.

“In this changing situation, we must reexamine the traditional training system and model for competitive sports,” said recently Liu Shannon of China’s General Administration of Sport.

It is no longer mandatory for students to live full-time on campus and athletic pursuits are also advertised as an after-school pastime. To provide them with a broader skill set, those enrolled in sports courses won’t be given as much slack when it comes to academia.

Beijing 2008 legacy

The dominance of Chinese Olympians might be coming to an end. In 2008 they topped the table with no fewer than 100 medals, but four years ago they dropped to second place. Soon we will know if the downward trend is to continue in Rio, but the legacy of the Olympic Games is more than athletic achievement.

For the hosting cities, the most prestigious sporting event in the world prompts dramatic changes, with the construction of the Olympic Village being the most obvious mark of the Games. The Chinese Olympic Team have been very vocal in their criticism of the facilities in Rio, with their complaints ranging from defunct toilets to security issues.

Eight years ago, the Chinese spent USD44 billion on making Beijing 2008 perfect. A virtually unlimited budget and a complete disregard for residents are the mark of a state that doesn’t have to limit itself for fear of public outrage. Unsurprisingly, the cost of the Beijing Games was surpassed only in Sochi.

The humongous Bird’s Nest stadium in the Chinese capital, purpose built in 2008, will take three decades to cover its RMB3.5 billion construction cost. At present, it almost never fills up its 80 000 seats, but as the Chinese develop their taste for sports, it might yet see better days. For now, it is a costly attraction for domestic tourists.

However, Professor Susan Brownell, a specialist on the Chinese Olympics, believes there are some benefits of the Games being staged by an authoritarian regime. While elsewhere it is difficult to use the ‘Olympic’ brand to generate public uptake of sports, in China the Games could easily be leveraged to promote physical activity, with no fear of breaching copyright.

The unwanted Games

Chinese officials are hoping to make similar use the Winter Olympic Games in 2022 when Beijing becomes the first city in history to have hosted both the summer and winter events. The competition for hosting in 2022 wasn’t particularly fierce as all bidders, with the exception of Beijing and Almatay in Kazakhstan, withdrew from the process.

The astronomical cost of the Games, both economic and social, discouraged Oslo, Stockholm and Krakow, where residents opposed the disruption and forced their Olympic Committees to back out.

For small, developed nations, Olympic publicity is no longer a coveted prize. “The deck is now somewhat stacked in favour of countries who feel they have something to prove to the world,” said to CNBC Professor Gordon Haylton, a specialist in sports law.

In 2022 the Chinese will have to prove that they can transform the driest part of Asia into a snow sports paradise. Although Beijing regularly sees temperatures drop below freezing, snow is almost entirely a man made commodity. Environmentalists are appalled as the production of the white fluff is expected to consume 1% of Beijing’s water supply.

Most of the skiing events will be staged in the nearby city of Zhangiiakou on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert. It is estimated that the production of snow will cost USD90 million – a drop in the ocean compared to the USD62 billion that China has already pumped into solving the North’s water supply issues.

The authorities are hoping that Olympic investment will lead to the promotion of winter sports. The region around Zhanjiakou is to become a skiing resort that could revive the local economy. At present, every year only around 20 000 Chinese go on a ski trip longer than a week. President Xi Jinping has promised that, inspired by the 2022 Olympics, more than 300 million people will take to the slopes.

After the grandiose spectacle of Beijing 2008, we can be sure that in 2022 the Chinese officials will stop at nothing to make the Winter Games a success, regardless of the environmental, social and economic costs.