The Beijing Olympic Games

The Beijing Olympic Games

China preparing for the Olympic Games (© 2008 / J. Auriac)


Swifter, Higher and Stronger. The Chinese society seems to be completely moulded by Coubertin's motto. How far away is the time of Peyrefitte's  Immobile Empire! Liu Xiang, the Chinese public's hero, winner of the 110 m hurdles at the last Athens Olympic Games, first Chinese gold medalist in athletism, really symbolizes the rise of sports in this country. In twenty years, he has crossed from five gold medals gleaned in 1988 at Seoul to a crop of 63 medals (32 golds) at the 28th 2004 Olympic Games, just behind the United States (35). He continuously improved his scores in world Championships and Cups, from an annual average of 45 medals in the 1980s, to 92 in the 1990s,  and 105 in the 2000s. However, the sports situation of the country cannot be confined to a mere criteria of its recent successes in international meets.

Some sport…

The most used modern Chinese neologism to designate « sport » (yundong/movement) only refers to a kinetic notion. We are far from the French etymology desport, « recreation of body and mind». The modern « sports » that the colleges of the English gentry of the 19th century has handed down to us, aiming to link intellectual and physical education, are not however enemies of the Chinese tradition, far from it. Confucius himself made archery enter in its ideal curriculum. Tradition placed martial arts not far from the art of the brush, mainly practiced by soldiers or scholars, it is true, like in our country in ancient times.

But sports remains greatly the privilege of the developed countries. China, entered in 1980 after 30 years of absence, added 281 medals, of which 4/5 won since 1988, against 2 413 for United States, the « rival to be beaten ».  In fact, these results in the history of the Olympic movement do not appear on a population scale, today estimated to be 1.3 billion. However if we compare these results to fourteen medals ever retrieved by India, the equation sport / development level seems more than ever justified.

Chinese sport, reflection of the splits in the whole society, is a double-geared system. On one side are found the Olympic and world champions, icons with added vitamins, meant for administrating proof of the success of post-Deng Xiaoping China in international and internal opinion. They make up the pride of a nation, which lives through the performances of this minority, like elsewhere in the domain of space conquest, a sort of revenge vis-à-vis a West since the domineering centuries. What could be more natural! On the other hand a worrying lack of physical exercise of the population, sometimes verging on a real problem of public health (obesity of only children). 

Sport practice in China
(© 2008 / J. Auriac)

For « mass » practice, we have two national surveys (1) lead by the Chinese Commission of sports in 1996 and 2001. That of 2008, which will be published at the end of the year, even if it had to register a slight progression, should not be making deep changes. According to that of 2001, 35% of the population of more than sixteen years devoted itself at least once a year to a physical or sportive activity (a game of table tennis, an excursion by foot, a few baskets of basketball, …). The increase of 0.65% with respect to 96, if one takes into account the natural growth of population during the same period of 6 %, implies an undeniable drop over which the authorities worry a lot. In fact, amateur sports like health, social security or schools were victims of economic restructuring. However it is not sure that the employees regret the time of compulsory gymnastics under blaring loud speakers of the Maoist era.

In 2001, the population of more than 16 years old performing a regular sport or physical activity was 18.3 %, with a gap of close to 3 points between men and women, to the detriment   of women - compared to 71% of France -. If we relate this 18.3 % to that of amateurs who, within this group, have participated in at least four competitions or demonstrations in the year (23.2 %, 2000 statistics) we obtain a ratio of 4.5 % of the population practising a competitive sport. The eight most popular activities among the amateurs are, in order, walking and running, badminton, swimming, football, basketball, volley-ball and table tennis.

To paint a picture closer to reality, it must be pointed out that the bicycle however remains one of the most developed means of transport in China ; it is left out  of statistics because it is experienced as a constraint and not as a past-time. Conversely, these recreational activities of senior citizens are included which delight in  our eyes the parks of the entire China of senior citizens with no hangups devoting all their time to their morning gymnastics or these traditional rhythmic parades accompanied by fan, tambourine or cymbals…

But the practice of leisure or amateur sports is in the shape of « horse saddle» with a heavy rush for the very young and senior citizens. A small part of adults at work, engaged in the « struggle for life », devotes itself to physical exercises. The  only group to show better results is that of « scientific and academic personnel» (34.3%) – to be compared to 88% of university graduates in France.

So, why such a low rate of spectator sport?

The reasons put forth by the survey of 2001 are:

  • « lack of time» upto 53.8% : one must work hard to offer a decent life style to one's family, pay for the children's studies, settling them in life, make savings, because there isnt any or very few systems of pensions;
  • « the [utter] lack of sports places and equipments » upto 34.9 % : if  today China has around 20 000 sports infrastructures (stadiums, gymnasiums, etc.), 71% of these activities are conducted in non dedicated public places: « parks, roads, riversides and canals… » ; and then, one must not forget the smog of big cities which is not particularly involved in outdoor sports;
  • and the « lack of interest» upto 30.2% : we include these hundreds of millions of farmers or migrants having little inclination to « do it again» after the pain, or better still, in the wide movement of current urbanization, we can draw a parallel without post-war generation which, liberated from field works of their elders, considered absence of physical effort as a progress.

However, the answers oriented by the questionnaire conceal many other reasons, of which one seems to impose more than everything else: absence of associative fabric, hardly encouraged, and its corollary, revulsion for participating in activities of command.
Finally, the survey reveals, as expected, that the practice of sport is more and more linked to incomes. The new urban strata recipients of growth mark a greater interest in maintaining their bodies (wasnt Miss World 2007 Chinese?) and set aside a larger part of their budget to sports. Fitness gyms flourish throughout China. But it is beyond the means of each and everyone to join these gyms. Thus, at Beijing, subscription to a private sports room costs annually between 1000 and 5000 yuans (10 yuans=1euro) which is a lot for an average monthly salary of 1800. There's no point in speaking of golf which, at another level, enables one to mark one's « distinction ».

If the children and adolescents are spared by this sports stagnation because they are, like  in  our country, compelled to two or three hours of weekly physical education, they hardly taste the joys of a sports club. Their uniform, in the form of coloured tracksuit, masks a severe academic competition completely focussed on success in exams. The parental effort plays more on private tuitions in maths than on leisure activities on Sundays. In the week-end, at any rate in the cities, the use of academic and university facilities is for a fee – law of the market demands- reserved for outdoors. The cost of occupation of tennis court at Beijing, for one hour, is 150 yuans indoors (average temperature of Beijing is -5°C in January and 35°C in July) or 60 yuans outdoors, in accordance with prices for a « lawn» of football.

The State promotes sport, and the Olympic Games
(© 2008 / J. Auriac)

The « sports culture» however marks some points. The tele-viewers are very fond of televised matches. The celebrity of a Yao Ming, Chinese giant of 2.23 m, in the American NBA championship has turned many Chinese adolescents into real specialists of American basketball. And the last European football Cup has got the people of Shanghai just as much interested – despaired of the low level of their national teams marked by corruption - as the Europeans. Saying one is French throughout China brings about, one out of two times, an admiring remark on Dji-da-nei (Zidane). The sports industry has also experienced a strong growth, from clothes to materials, upto Loto (caipiao). Let us suppose that these Games will introduce a more pronounced taste in the public.

The Chinese competition sports therefore suffers from a chronic weakness of amateur sports. It is organized in a centralized manner by the State. The national Commission (ministry) is equipped with the best instruments to cater to the requirements of national pride. It covers the provincial commissions entrusted to the sports organization till the base. A small number of competitions are officially organized every year, about 40 000 in the whole of China in the last few years, they have brought together in all only 12 millions participants in 2006, less than 1% of the population. According to latest statistics, going back to two years, China only has 50 000 national graduates, all disciplines considered, of which 5 000 hosted in intensive training centres. The big batallions are found in athletism, football and firing. 20 000 among them form sports elite, duly remunerated. They are for a large part selected very young, not according to their interest for such and such a discipline, but on their physical profile, and trained in a pyramidal network of 4 000 sports school. Brought up to get results, their overtrained athletic life cycle is relatively short. 550 at least (200 more than in Athens) had to take part in competitions and perhaps manage to shine in disciplines other than those in which they usually reach the peaks: firing, diving, table tennis, badminton, weightlifting, gymnastics and judo.

But the « State sport» à la chinoise is a hackneyed subject on which it is pointless to insist. Besides China is far from being the only to perform this outrageous form and it is there that all ambiguity resides about the current drifts of sport and Olympic Games in particular.

And the Games!

Demolishing work and new constructions
(© 2008 / J. Auriac)

The Beijing Olympic Games will not break with what we have seen previously in other host cities, a few notches higher. Investments were high to put Beijing in line with international standards, because the city took off from afar.

Just at the level of sports  investments, even if we dont have the official figures, the financial pressure was heavy: apart from the national stadium in the shape of a nest earmarked for ceremonies and the modern mind-blowing Aquatic Centre, whose photos everyone has already seen (designed by western architects), nine other multi-sports centres were built in the capital (most often on the university campuses), ten others were completely renovated for the occasion. But that is not all, eight sports facilities were built, without mentioning the olympic village and technical buildings. Finally, to this list must be added six brand new stadiums or sports bases in other cities having to host parallel competitions (football at Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenyang ; aquatic sports at Qingdao …).

The scientific studies alone conducted on the subject of Games, such as to invent a torch resistant to the lack of oxygen in the peaks of Everest or, more seriously, to accord a touch of ecology to these Games (use of renewable energy sources, protection of air quality), or even the studies prior to the constructions, rose upto 300 millions Euros.

A town with a resolutely modern architecture
(© 2008 / J. Auriac)

Until then, nothing other than natural, it was the price to be paid for the Games to be held in China. But this is without taking into account the enormous investments in infrastructure to turn Beijing into a capital city that the world could « acclaim » (hecai) like an emblem of a new superpower. The China Central Television headquarters building shaped like a « pant» (ah, popular irony!) defying the laws of physics or even the new national theatre designed by Paul Andreu in the heart of the city are symbols of it. Since a few years, the city has thus covered itself with a forest of glass towers of more than thirty storeys, to prove that Beijing has entered the third millennium.

In the domain of transport, which suffered from heavy delays, investments were cyclopic: construction of the new airport, highways leading to it, its suspended link with the central city, several metro lines, ring roads, high speed rail lines Beijing -Tianjin, railway stations, etc...

Restoration of old buildings and of the canals
(© 2008 / J. Auriac)

The city has undergone a thorough face-lifting. The public road system was systematically renovated: roads cemented again, pavements redone, with passage for physically challenged people (the Paralympic Games must not be forgotten) fittings and fixtures installed in streets replaced, electrical lines earthed, residences of the people of Beijing systematically renovated. The urban historical centre was subjected to massive rehabilitations; old monuments were all restored, yellow roofs glazed new, walls painted bright red. And in the whole city, fixed along the roads are ingenious machines for the body building culture…

The star attraction is undoubtedly the remarkable effort in terms of green spaces. The city has seen many large scale trees planted. Squares, green lanes, botanical recreational parks were created. Everywhere flowerbeds have surfaced. This year it will be difficult to take away the prize for the most flower-bedecked city in the world from Beijing. And lawns and lawns everywhere, at the doors of the Gobi Deserts! A big canal for bringing in the waters of the Yangtze till Beijing, dug for hundreds of kilometres, has come to give, just in the nick of time, water to the thirsty city for the past nine years, for want of rainfall. It now fills the moats, canals and ponds of the capital to satiety.

New green spaces
(© 2008 / J. Auriac)

Finally, there are all these unaccounted costs that are difficult to ignore. Thus, in the name of the struggle against pollution and to make Beijing a breathable city, since years, the outsourcing of polluting companies, recent renewal of buses, putting into auction blocks tens of thousands of taxis which are no longer in conformity with standards become drastic at the European level. And to conclude everything, all these factories within a radius of several hundred kilometres around a capital choked with rejects of others should close during the month of August and September for the Games to live under a serene sky.

The political authorities are obssessed by the fear of disorders. Lets consider that the new Chinese agency has just announced (22-06-2008) that “an anti-terrorist force of the police and the Army of close to 100 000 commandos was put under maximum stay alert to block any terrorist attack before and during the Games. […] Besides the capital mobilizes security forces with 150 000 men and a body of volunteers ensuring patrols of more than 290 000 persons», i.e. a total of 540 000 men in the context of 500 000 foreign visitors expected.

China, a country equipped with a centralism that is beyond comparison, has undoubtedly concentrated several points of its GNP to invite the world sumptuously to its banquet. It is holding its breath. A few months ago even if the man or the woman on the road registered a blissful optimism for the glamour of the festivities announced, the recent events regarding the flame or even the earthquake at Sichuan have made them take a little distance, indeed they are worried. « The Games are not really essential» one hears sometimes.

Basically, these Olympic Games, with their outrageous organization, rendered possible by the «excesses» of the country in which they are held and the regime that convenes them– with such a desire for political recognition and economic expansion– produce a magnifying glass effect on the current globalization. China thinks itself of being in a situation of balance of power with the West and its challenge is to do better than the others. The systematic denigrations by the western opinion cater, as seen by China, to a same logic, and contribute without any doubt to maintain it.

And what the devil if the sport obtains only the bronze medal! It is not China that has brought it down from the height of the podium, but its own economic and political drifts. The question does not lie there. The sportsmen of the whole world have chosen to show up at this rendez-vous. We only have to hope that everything will go on for the better, that it is at least a success for this huge majority of Chinese that have dreamt of it and who wish that it is a celebration…their celebration./.


Olympic facilities: the pool and the stadium, 
with its nest shape
(© 2008 / J. Auriac)