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.
In recent decades, China has been a top competitor at the Summer Olympic Games. Since 1996, China has netted 226 gold, 157 silver, and 137 bronze medals, putting it in second place in both golds and total medals behind only the United States. China’s best performance to date came in 2008, when China hosted the Olympics in Beijing. That year Chinese athletes led the world gold medal count by a wide margin with 48 golds. However, China fell short of leading in the overall medal count, earning 99 medals compared to the United States’ 112. At the most recent Summer Games, held in Tokyo in 2021, China earned 38 golds, falling just one medal short of tying the United States.1
China’s performance at the Winter Games 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. China did not earn its first gold medal at the Winter Games until a decade later in 2002 when another speed skater, Yang Yang, won golds in the women’s 1000m and 500m. Since 1994, China has only earned 13 gold, 25 silver, and 21 bronze medals, placing it 13th globally in the overall medal count. This trend has not changed significantly in recent years. At the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, China ranked 14th in the overall medal count with one gold, six silver, and two bronze medals.
This proficiency in summer sports is also reflected in China’s performance at the Paralympics. China has emerged as a dominant player in the Summer Paralympics, winning the total medal count in every Summer Paralympic Game since 2004. By comparison, China has earned only one medal at the Winter Paralympic Games—a gold in wheelchair curling at the 2018 Pyeongchang 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 United States 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 United States and the United Kingdom, which rank first and third in the total medal count since the first modern Olympic Games were held in 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 these other wealthy countries.
However, when adjusted to account for population size, China’s results are less impressive. China averages one medal per 2.2 million citizens, placing it at 107th in the world, after Thailand. In the Paralympic Games, China averages one medal per 1.3 million citizens. By comparison, Lichtenstein has earned one Olympic medal for every 3,647 residents. Scandinavian countries also fare well thanks to their dominance in the Winter Olympics. Norway ranks second in the world in per capita medals, with one medal per 9,607 persons, followed by Finland (11,504) and Sweden (14,556).
Countries that are successful at the Olympics often rely on scoring several medals in a limited number of disciplines. The United States, for instance, ranks first overall in medals for swimming, athletics, and shooting. Canada has historically performed well in ice hockey and curling. China’s success has likewise 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 (32 golds) and badminton (20 golds) than any other country in the world.
Hosting the 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 and again in 2022 as Beijing hosts the 24th Winter Games.
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. 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 Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. 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. 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 one 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.”
The 2008 Olympics brought considerable international attention to China's struggle with air pollution. Learn more about air pollution in China.
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 performing 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.
Beijing is again hosting the Olympics in February 2022—this time the Winter Games—becoming the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games. For the Winter Games, Beijing is debuting new structures to accommodate winter sports such as the National Sliding Center, the National Speed Skating Oval, the National Ski Jumping Center, and the Big Air Shougang stadium. However, China is reusing many of the venues constructed for the 2008 Summer Olympics, including the Bird’s Nest and the “Water Cube,” now renamed the “Ice Cube.”
Reusing facilities has led to some cost savings, but the 2022 Games are expected to come with a massive price tag. The official budget for the 2022 Winter Games is $3.9 billion, but estimates suggest that this figure vastly undercounts total spending. One investigation found that the actual cost of the 2022 Games may be $38.5 billion when including related infrastructure spending on the Olympic Village, highways, rail lines, and airports. This would make the Winter 2022 Games the third most expensive in history, after the Sochi 2014 Winter Games ($59.7 billion) and the Beijing 2008 Games ($52.7 billion).2
As with the 2008 Games, China has again sought to show off its technological prowess and clean energy credentials. On the tech front, the Chinese government has pushed to showcase its new central bank digital currency (CBDC) at the Games. The “digital yuan,” as it is commonly called, is emerging as one of the world’s first CBDCs and is poised to significantly impact China’s financial technology ecosystem. Beijing has also heavily emphasized its sustainable and green infrastructure, with state reports announcing that 26 of the Winter Olympics venues will run entirely on renewable energy.
Yet the 2022 Winter Games are taking place in a world very different from the one in which China last hosted the Olympics. The Chinese economy has developed rapidly, more than doubling in size since 2008. That has given it a much larger presence in the global economy. In 2022, China is forecasted to account for 18.9 percent of global GDP—up from 11.8 percent in 2008.3
This economic growth has dramatically transformed the Olympic host city Beijing itself. In 2008, the Beijing subway system consisted of seven lines—two of which were constructed in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. In 2022, the Beijing subway system consists of 25 lines stretching 783 kilometers and containing 459 stations.
While China is wealthier and more influential in the global economy, the country faces a slate of new challenges in executing the 2022 Winter Olympics. Polling by Pew Research Center shows that favorable views of China have plummeted since 2008 in many countries. In Australia, for example, just 21 percent of respondents had favorable views of China in 2021, compared to 52 percent in 2008. Views of China have also seen significant declines in the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Germany, and Japan.
China’s declining popularity is in part due to international concerns about Chinese human rights abuses and political crackdowns in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. In response to these concerns, several countries—including the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania—officially announced diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Winter Olympics. India also joined in staging a diplomatic boycott after a Chinese soldier, who was wounded during a deadly skirmish on the China-India border, was chosen as an Olympic torch bearer. China has also been criticized for rounding up activists and critics ahead of the 2022 Games and for warning athletes and journalists not to speak out on political issues.
On top of growing geopolitical tensions, the Beijing Winter Games are taking place under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike Tokyo, which did not allow spectators at the 2020 Summer Olympics, China is allowing Chinese citizens to attend the games in-person. However, the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus led Beijing to cancel ticket sales to the public and invite only select groups of spectators to attend the games in person.
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 three 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 2021, GASC’s budget stood at roughly $1 billion (RMB 6.4 billion). By comparison, Australia, which has a track record of performing well at the Summer Olympics, allocated just $124 million to the Australian Sports Commission for the 2020-2021 year. In terms of financing, the United States 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 rely instead on private sponsorship.
Part of China’s sports spending in recent years likely went to preparing China for the 2022 Winter Olympics. In 2016, China’s leaders put forth the National Construction Plan of Winter Sports Infrastructure, which outlined a goal of building 650 skating rinks and 800 ski resorts (complete with fake snow) by 2022. According to reports, China achieved this goal, with a total of 654 skating rinks and 804 ski resorts set up by January 2022.
China’s Paralympic athletes have also benefited from strong financial support. Since hosting the Paralympics in 2008, China has built a variety of infrastructure to support disabled athletes and people. As of December 2020, China had trained nearly 140,000 instructors for disabled athletes and developed 13,313 specialized community fitness centers across the country, with training centers in each province. This level of support has contributed to the enormous success of China’s Paralympians. China stormed the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, earning 207 total medals—83 more medals than the United Kingom, which placed second in the overall medal count.
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 2,000 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.
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.”