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    Greater China
     Aug 18, 2012

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.

The 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 weblog.

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 ifeng.com.

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 media.

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.

Over 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. [1] According to state media, 240,000 retired athletes are grappling with injuries, poverty and unemployment.

"Winning gold 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 Sport University.

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 year."

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 sports."

1. World champion gymnast begging on Beijing's subways
, ABC News, Jul 19, '11.

Yvonne Su is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.

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