International sports competitions provide countries with opportunities to showcase the best of their nation to the rest of the world. They are highly visible platforms that can be used to facilitate cultural exchanges and bolster a country’s international reputation. For a country like China, which often struggles to cultivate a positive image of itself among the global community, success at these competitions hinges on what happens both inside and outside of the stadium.
How China fares on the Olympic Podium
Decades of rapid economic development have corresponded with China’s emergence as a global force in international sports. Nowhere has this trend been more on display than at the Olympic Games, which offer participating nations an opportunity to boost their international image by showcasing their athletic prowess. Since the end of the Cold War, China has been a top competitor at the Summer Olympic Games, netting some 204 gold, 148 silver, and 134 bronze medals, placing it at second place in total medals after the US.
China’s performance at the Winter Games, however, has been more pedestrian. Despite participating in every Winter Olympics since 1980, China did not bring home its first winter medal until 1992 when Chinese speed skater Ye Qiaobo won silver in the women’s 500m. Since then, China has only earned 13 golds and 62 total medals, placing it 16th globally in the overall medal count. At the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, China’s only gold medal came from speed skater Wu Dajing’s performance in the men’s 500m. Combined with its six silver and two bronze medals, China placed 16th overall in 2018.
This proficiency in summer sports is also highlighted by China’s performance at the Paralympics. Since 1992 China has taken home a total of 959 Paralympic medals, ranking it 7th in the world,1 just behind France. This medal count is heavily skewed toward the Summer Paralympic Games, as China has yet to win a medal at the Winter Paralympic Games.
China has also achieved considerable success at competitions outside of the Olympic/Paralympic framework. At the Summer Asian Games, a multi-sport competition held every 4 years, China has won more medals than any other participant. China’s student athletes have also earned the third most medals in the World University Games, behind the US and Japan.
Wealthy countries with sizable populations are often top performers at the Olympics and Paralympics. This correlation is exemplified by the strong performances of the US and UK, which rank first and third in the total medal count since 1896. China’s massive economy and population have helped it take home more total medals than countries like Australia, Japan, and Canada – despite China having participated in only half the number of Olympic Games as other wealthy countries.
When adjusting for its population, China’s results are less impressive. China averages one medal per 2 million citizens, placing it at 107th in the world after Thailand. In the Paralympic Games, China averages one medal per 1.3 million citizens.
Countries that are successful at the Olympics often rely on scoring several medals in a limited number of disciplines. The US, for instance, ranks first overall in medals for swimming, athletics, and shooting. Canada has historically performed well in ice hockey and curling. Similarly, China’s success has been concentrated in a few disciplines. Athletes competing in gymnastics, diving, and shooting have produced the most medals for China. Chinese athletes have also earned more gold medals in table tennis (28 golds) and badminton (18 golds) than any other country in the world.
Hosting the 2008 Olympics
While athletic accomplishments can go a long way in boosting the prestige of a nation, hosting major international sporting competitions provides additional opportunities for countries to display their cultural and technological achievements to the world. These factors were at play when China hosted the 29th Olympic Games in the summer of 2008. The Beijing Olympics marked the first time that China hosted the Olympics, and only the 5th time since 1894 that the competition was hosted by an Asian country.
Beijing recruited the help of some 400,000 city volunteers and 100,000 game-time volunteers for the 2008 Olympics.
For China’s leaders, the 2008 Olympics provided a platform to showcase China’s athletic achievements, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate China’s national strength and reinforce the CCP’s legitimacy. 2 Several new policies were put forth toward this end, many of which were aimed at countering common associations of China with cheaply made goods, environmental problems, and poor governance. 3 As such, Beijing invested heavily in state-of-the-art construction and infrastructure projects, such as the Bird’s Nest Stadium. It also recruited the help of some 400,000 city volunteers and 100,000 game-time volunteers to strengthen ties between the Chinese government and the public.
One of the bigger challenges China faced revolved around widespread pollution issues. To cut down on emissions, over a thousand coal mines were closed and up to a million cars per day were banned from the streets of Beijing. China also prioritized the use of renewable energy, equipping all seven main Olympic stadiums with solar-powered generators. This endeavor was lauded by Green Peace, which commended Beijing for “improv[ing] city infrastructure and using leading energy-saving technologies in venues.”
Perhaps the most visible display of China’s efforts to cultivate its prestige was at the opening ceremony, which was described by The Guardian as “China’s coming out party as a major world power.” The blockbuster event featured thousands of artists that performed carefully choreographed sequences that not only celebrated China’s cultural history, but also – as The New York Times observed – aimed to “inspire national pride within China” and “reassure the world that a rising China poses no danger.” With a total audience of more than 1 billion viewers, it was the most-watched Olympic opening ceremony in history, far surpassing that of London 2012 and Rio 2016, which attracted audiences of roughly 300 million.
Host nations are often scrutinized by the international community. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia was widely criticized for its policies toward its LGBT+ community. Some foreign observers protested the 2008 Games in response to China’s policies in Tibet and its resistance to supporting sanctions on Sudan for the War in Darfur. The controversy surrounding Darfur contributed to the public resignation of Stephen Spielberg, who was slated to direct the opening ceremony.
It is unclear to what degree these factors positively influenced global views of China. Polling data from Gallup shows that the percentage of individuals from the US with a favorable view toward China remained unchanged from 2008 to 2009 (36 percent). Data from the Pew Research Center shows that over the same period, the percentage of Americans with favorable opinions of China jumped by 11 percent. Similarly, favorable views of China among the French and Japanese surged by 13 and 12 percent, respectively.
China’s efforts to bolster its international image ultimately proved rather costly. Extensive city beautification and infrastructure development made the Beijing Olympics the second most expensive in history. Although official reports peg the cost of the Beijing Games at around $2.8 billion, other sources suggest that total costs may have run as high as $42 billion – three times greater than the 2012 London Games and almost ten times greater than the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Notwithstanding the considerable price tag, China may very well have benefited from serving as the host nation. Unlike other countries that have struggled to manage the long-term costs of maintaining Olympic facilities, venues like the Bird’s Nest Stadium and Water Cube are still in use today and have become popular tourist attractions. Additionally, Goldman Sachs observed that “more than 90 percent of the total investment for the Games” was in infrastructure development designed to bolster telecommunication, transportation, and utility networks. With the legacy left by the 2008 Olympics, all eyes will soon again be on Beijing as the city gears up to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022.
China’s Path to Olympic Success
China has adopted a state-driven approach to international sporting competitions, which is designed to boost athletic success through government policies and programs. For instance, The Olympic Glory-winning Program Guidelines 2001-2010 was put forward by China’s General Administration of Sports (GASC) in 2002, which called for China to place among the top 3 medal winners at the 2008 Olympics. Included in this plan was “Project 119,” a program aimed at improving outcomes in disciplines where China’s performance had historically been underwhelming, such as swimming and rowing.
China’s centralized approach also stands on firm financial backing. In 2016, GASC received $651 million (4.5 billion yuan) in government funding, an uptick of 45 percent from 2011. Australia, which has a track record of performing well at the Summer Olympics, earmarked just $272 million for its own sports commission in 2016. In terms of financing, the US is a notable point of comparison, as it is one of only a handful of countries that do not have government-funded sports programs. American athletes are forced to rely instead on private sponsorship.
Part of this surge in spending is likely meant to prepare China for the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. In 2016, China’s leaders put forth the National Construction Plan of Winter Sports Infrastructure, which outlined a goal to build 650 skating rinks and 800 ski resorts (complete with fake snow) by 2022. China is already well on its way toward this goal, having more than doubled the number of ski resorts from 300 in 2014 to 700 in 2017.
China’s Paralympic athletes have also benefited from strong financial support. As of 2016, China had trained more than 40,000 instructors for disabled athletes and opened 225 provincial and national specialized training centers. This level of support has contributed to the enormous success of China’s Paralympians. At the 2016 Rio Paralympics, China blew away the competition with 239 total medals. China earned 92 more medals than the UK, which placed second overall in the medal count.
One US women’s rowing coach referred to Chinese athletes as “robots with all the resources they could ever ask for.”
China’s top-down approach is also integral to how it recruits athletes. Promising children as young as 4 years old are trained through China’s over two thousand state-run sports academies. While this method has helped raise medal counts, it has done little to improve international perceptions of China. Foreign observers have been critical of the toll these sports academies take on young athletes, with one US women’s rowing coach referring to Chinese athletes as “robots with all the resources they could ever ask for.”
Beijing has countered this criticism by arguing that its training programs provide underprivileged families with the resources their children need to compete internationally. Such was the case with the captain of China’s gold-winning 2016 women’s volleyball team, Zhu Ting, who grew up in poverty but was given the opportunity to compete through a state-run training school. Other notable Chinese athletes, such as former basketball superstar Yao Ming, have been educated through this system.
|Chinese Athletes with the Most Medals|
|Source:International Olympic Committee|
Nonetheless, it appears that Beijing may be shifting its priorities from focusing primarily on increasing medal counts to also cultivating likable personalities. Despite underperforming at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Chinese athletes seemed more inclined to express themselves. Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui garnered international praise for speaking openly about how menstruation may have affected her performance. That same year, Chinese athlete Qin Kai publicly proposed to his girlfriend, He Zi, after she received a silver medal in diving. This emerging trend was summed up by state-backed newspaper Global Times in 2016: “We no longer need to focus on the number of gold medals to prove the nation’s strength, but can instead applaud how much effort the athletes have paid and the true character behind them.”
- The Paralympics began in 1960, but China first participated in 1984. It ranks 7th overall in the total medal count since 1960.
- Victor D. Cha, Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 61.
- Wolfram Manzenreiter, “The Beijing Games in the Western Imagination of China: The Weak Power of Soft Power,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 34, no. 1 (March 2010): 29-48.