Silk Road to Sports

April 23, 2023

China is gearing up fast to throw many surprises to its counterparts in the 2024 Paris Olympics

Silk Road to Sports

Our next door neighbour China is one of the oldest civilizations of the world. China has always been known for its great martial art traditions.

In order to understand the Chinese rise to the global sports power, one needs to plunge deep into the political and cultural evolution of the Mainland since 1949, and see how its visionary national leadership conceived the power of sport for nation building, political maturity, social integration and global dominance.

The beginning of 19th century witnessed the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the rise of Britain as a global power. Britain waged a war against China in 1840, which resulted in the signing of “Nanjing Treaty” which led China to become one of the biggest opium-consuming semi-colonial societies of Great Britain.

The year 1908 was significant in Chinese history when a famous Chinese sports advocate Xu Yibing objected to the military exercises in schools and introduced the motto “Strengthen the Chinese nation’s physique, wipe out the shame of the sick man of Asia”.

From the 19th century to the early 20th century the Chinese deeply feared racial extinction and rapid decline in their physical standards which gave birth to the first Chinese Gymnastic School.

During these defining moments of Chinese history, Chairman Mao Zedong was deeply inspired by the founder of Chinese Communist party Chen Duxiu and his literary work published in the magazine by the name of New Youth. Mao got his inspiration of using sports and physical exercise for nation building through Chen’s articles. Mao later himself wrote an article in the New Youth magazine in April 1917, “A study of physical culture” that can be regarded as one of the most influential writings on sports in China, that later served as a blueprint of sports development in the days of the cultural revolution.

Silk Road to Sports

When nationalism was on the rise in China, both Mao and Chen believed that Chinese people were suffering the catastrophe of losing their identity after the opium wars. They noted with concern that people’s health was declining and public interest in martial arts was flagging.

Mao encouraged everyone to remain physically fit so that everyone can effectively contribute towards national growth. Inspired by the power of sport Mao gave a new slogan “Keep fit, Study well, Work well”. On 27th Feb 1957 Mao said, “We should enable everyone who receives an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically and become a strong worker with socialist consciousness and general education”.

In-line with Mao’s philosophy, Feng Wenbin, the first president of the All China Sports Federation, spelled out the task of Physical Culture for the Chinese nation in 1949. Feng stated that the Chinese new democratic physical culture was to develop sports for people’s health, new democratic construction and the people’s national defense.

A soviet sport delegation visited China in August 1950 and introduced the Soviet model of sports development. In 1951 Russian sportsmen visited eight Chinese cities and played 33 basketball games. Early school Physical Education manuals were translated from Russian and the first international sports contract was signed between China and Russia to train Chinese teams, develop women sports, enable elite athletes to train full time and also carry out the training of Chinese armed forces athletes with Russian support.

In 1956 the Elite Sports System of People’s Republic of China (PRC) was adopted: 43 elite sports were recognized; and full-time sports teams were organised at national and provincial levels. The same year the Sports Commission led by China’s Vice Premier He Long issued the “Regulations for Youth Extra Curricular Sports Schools”. Thus more emphasis was given to sports in education institutions and its grassroots development.

Unfortunately, 1958-1966 was a period of political upheavals in China that dented the process of mass sports in the country. The national sports system was vilified as an independent realm beyond CCP control.

The Chinese sports management & training system was abolished in 1967 and most sports facilities were dismantled or destroyed and stadiums were converted into venues for political meetings.

Silk Road to Sports

After ten difficult political years, Premier Zhou Enlai took over the reign of China in April 1969. The visionary leader immediately started working to restore the country’s scientific and education standards including sports.

Sports officials were reappointed in the State Physical Culture & Sports Commission and the all-important National Physical Education & Sports School Conference was held in 1972. The first National Middle School Sports meet was held in 1973 and the new slogan of “Exercising one’s body and will” was prophesied.

By October 1976 the Cultural Revolution in China had ended. The official line changed within two years when Chairman Ye Jiianying came into power. Chen Rong, a sports historian, argues that under the influence of cultural dictatorship the sports were put to the service of politics.

After Mao’s socialist and cultural revolution, the country’s new leader Deng Xiaoping advocated reformist open door policy and socialism with Chinese characteristics. However, along with an open door policy the CCP also preserved the spirit of Maoism. It must be remembered that China for the first time issued its Olympic strategy in 1976 and in late 1979 the IOC passed the Nagoya Resolution and PRC’s seat in IOC was reinstated after the absence of 21 years.

From 1980 onwards the Chinese sport system built on Mao’s philosophy of self-discipline was transformed by Xiaoping philosophy of promoting sports for the nation’s pride and China started paying serious attention to Olympic sports after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

On 5th October 1984, CCP central committee stated that there was a need for a robust sports policy that should aim at developing both the rural and urban physical and sports activities. It emphasised improving people’s health, training of young children in sports in education institutions, improving the training and competition system for elite sportsmen, developing R&D in sports and developing excellence in sporting events.

The state started rewarding athletes. The sports budget was increased and special emphasis was placed on the appointment of qualified sports leadership.

To avoid the misuse of finances, increase funding efficiency and maximise China’s Olympic gold prospects, China prioritised skill based and small, fast, women, water and agile sports disciplines.

The year 1995 was another significant one in Chinese sports history. Three landmark documents were published within one year.

The publication of “Rising Demands of Grassroots Sports Participation” resulted in the execution of the National Fitness Programme by the government. The “Outline of the Strategic Olympic Glory Plan 1994-2000” was the second significant document and the third was the “Sports Law of People’s Republic of China” that came into effect on 1st October 1995.

In 1998 the Sports Commission was renamed as General Administration of Sports (GAS). In July 2002 the sports leadership issued a policy document titled “Further strengthening & progressing sports in the new era” targeting the Beijing Olympics of 2008 as a paramount priority for the entire nation.

China finally dominated the gold medal tally in the 2008 Olympics, confirming its status as a global sports superpower.

The story of the great athletes of this great nation doesn’t end here. China defended and consolidated its position in the London 2012 Olympics. Premier Wen Jiabao issued the National Fitness Regulations in 2009 and the passion of president Xi Jinping in 2013 further promoted sports development in China.

One can notice that the Chinese top leadership irrespective of its political stance remains steadfast in developing sports.

It kept a fine balance between its national fitness policy and support for the elite sports, using sports for people’s general fitness, national integration and global dominance. In the foreseeable future sports will remain one of the top priorities of the Chinese government and China is gearing up fast to throw many surprises to its counterparts in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Silk Road to Sports