THE FLIP-SIDE TO
THE OLYMPICS China's Olympic gold loses some
glitter By Yvonne Su
BEIJING - As China celebrates its
victories in the just-concluded London Olympics,
with its athletes winning 38 gold medals, the
price the nation paid for each of those honors and
cost of the the state-sponsored sport system are
sparking an intensive debate, raising questions
about the legitimacy of the government's focus on
promoting nationalism with sports, something that
was inherited from the Soviet Union.
public began to realize how much an Olympic gold
medal costs them after the official Beijing
Evening News reported this month that the spending
for two years of training of swimmer Sun Yang,
winner of the 1,500-meter gold, was at least 10
million yuan (more than US$1.5 million). Shock and
anger at this revelation
quickly reopened a
debate over the athlete training system, which had
already been in question for many years.
"China's Olympic team is an ensemble that
cost us billions of dollars," Li Chengpeng, a
leading sports critic in China, said in his
Many netizens argued that Sun Yang
would have had no chance to win in London had he
not been given enormous financial support from the
government for his training. They said their tax
money had not been spent for their benefit.
"Ordinary people's lives are, of course,
more important than gold medals. Sadly, China is
the only exception" to this principle, a netizen
called Bonelover said on the popular website
The State General
Administration of Sports allocated 1.34 billion
yuan in 2011 and 1.48 billion yuan in 2012 to
train athletes. These figures, however, don't
include the undisclosed contributions made by
various regional governments. The winning of a
gold medal at an international sports event by an
athlete under their jurisdiction is considered a
big plus for future promotion of local-government
officials concerned, according to the Chinese
Based on the Chinese media's
calculations, one gold medal would on average cost
the country's taxpayers some 700 million yuan.
The People's Republic of China's dream of
winning gold at the Olympics started in 1951 when
its closest ally, the Soviet Union - which saw
winning more gold medals than the United States as
part of the Cold War - urged it to send a
delegation to the Helsinki Games in 1952. The PRC
then set up the National Sports Training Center as
its version of the Soviet Union's sports machine.
It was not until the Summer Olympic Games
in Los Angeles in 1984 that China earned its first
cache of gold medals. Among the 15 golds it won
that year, five were in gymnastics, four in
weightlifting and one in volleyball.
the decades, the sports system has hand-picked
talented children as young as six years old and
sent them to rigorous training programs. These
athletes are plucked from their families and
usually not allowed to visit them even during
major holidays such as the Lunar New Year.
At the training center at Beijing's
Longtan Lake, athletes start their day at 5:30 am,
with seven professional chefs serving breakfast in
the morning, and maids cleaning their apartments,
watering their plants and feeding their pet fish.
When they end their day at 10 pm, security guards
start hourly inspections of the training venues
during the night. A group of plumbers and
technicians in the academy, meanwhile, are
responsible for the supply of hot water and
electricity around the clock.
Though it is
successful in producing medalists, this system is
cruel to athletes after their sports careers are
over. Lacking other skills, they find it hard to
make a living. Last year, retired gymnast Zhang
Shangwu, who was selected for China's national
team in 2001 and won two gold medals at the World
University Games in Beijing, was found begging in
Beijing.  According to state media, 240,000
retired athletes are grappling with injuries,
poverty and unemployment.
medals, playing the national anthem, and raising
China's flag in sports competitions do excite
Chinese people, help boost the nation's confidence
and stimulate patriotism ... But we can't ignore
the growing disadvantages of the system," leading
commentator Hu Xuli said in Caixin magazine.
Intending to stop the debate, major
state-run publications cited anonymous sources
claiming that Sun Yang's training budget was not
as high as reported by the Beijing Evening News,
while some others reiterated the necessity of
keeping the system for the pursuit of gold medals.
"We should be confident about our system.
Such confidence is a reflection of our soft
power," the Beijing Daily said in an editorial.
Many members of the public seem to support
retaining the current system, as China is still
rather weak in certain sports, especially soccer,
basketball, and track and field. They blame the
poor performance of Chinese athletes in soccer and
basketball in international competitions on their
exclusion from the state-sponsored training system
since the 1990s when these games were made
professional. After the London Olympics, some
people have suggested that these sports be
included in the state-sponsored-system again.
"A lot of Chinese people have gotten used
to this system's existence. They would not be able
to adapt to radical changes, if there were any,"
said Xiong Xiaozheng, a researcher at Beijing
Sun Yang started
training with Australian coach Denis Cotterell in
February 2010. He visited Cotterell for four
70-day training sessions before the Olympics. The
Chinese media have suggested that his coach's
annual salary was 1 million yuan, but Cotterell
told The New York Times this year: "What they
offered me for a month, I could live on for a
With the Chinese economy, now the
world's second-largest, growing by more than 8%
annually, many people believe money is not a
problem for the country. Still, more and more
Chinese sports critics believe it is time for the
country to abandon or change the system.
Jia Zhikang, a Shenzhen-based sports
critic, argued: "It is time for the government to
answer questions about whether the authorities
concerned would dare to relinquish the system
experimentally and face China's real level in