In an excellent post last week in the NY Times, “Chinese Athletes Say No to the System“, Dan Levin wrote on the increasing number of Chinese athletes who are bumping up against arcane and restrictive rules placed upon them by the Chinese sporting system. Several articles on DailyHouse (Chinese Gymnast Forced To Sell Medals For Food, Li Na Is Making Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all.) have been among our most widely read content and I think this interest is reflective of a larger trend.
I’ve said several times in speeches to corporate clients that sport can serve as much more than just viewer entertainment and a source of accomplishment for the athlete. Sport can serve as a proxy of larger societal trends. Indeed, sport can help to open up a society and force change in archaic institutions. Sport is one of the few meritocratic endeavors that men and women undertake – if given the chance to compete fairly, the best athletes will, over time, rise to the top. Of course, there are myriad complications that get in the way of pure merit-based competition but just because an ideal is not always or easily met, does not mean that the ideal is not worth pursuing.
I myself have a mixed emotions and perspectives when thinking about China. I fervently believe that most people—American, Chinese, or any other nationality—generally want the same things: to be able to accomplish their dreams and support their loved ones, to be able to freely express themselves, and to live in a fair world. The reality is, obviously, that we live far from that idealistic world. The American media is rife with stories of a monolithic China, nationalistic and hell-bent on world domination, and based on my experiences with the Chinese government, I’d have to argue that is indeed true. But my experiences with Chinese people have been very nearly the complete opposite. That is why I like the NY Times article so much.
Levin’s piece outlines athletes who are doing their best to stand up to a system that forcefully demands compliance. Athletes, at least a few, are standing up against a sporting system that doles out some small reward to the winners and leaves the losers destitute. Li Na chose to leave the Chinese sporting system to pursue her tennis dream on her own terms and as a result the state run media issued the edict “stop hyping Li Na’s win.” The gymnast Zhang Shangwu, who was forced to sell his medals in order to survive, exposed the dire condition that many athletes in China who have spent their entire lives in state-sponsored athletic schools find themselves in after their careers are over. These athletes experiences are slowly moving the position of the sports agency bureaucrats.
To me, the most interesting case of the story was that of Shen Jian, one of China’s top BMX riders. Shen was never supported by the state athletic system and yet, when he was selected to compete in the Asian X-games, the Chinese government forced him to either wear the Chinese event sponsor logo and lose his own Vans contract, or refrain from competing. Shen chose not to lose his sponsorship over the deal, but the story illustrates the level of control the government exerts over any athlete who wants to compete in China.
Make no mistake about it, whether it is spoken or not, China is competing to be the most powerful nation on Earth. The government is driven and focused on winning in everything – sports, business, geopolitics. The leader of the Great Reform that opened China to the west in 1979, Deng Xiaoping, said: “Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead – but aim to do something big”. That principle has guided the state athletic program and is now paying dividends in the same way that their economic reform has – It is rarely mentioned in the US media, but China won 51 gold medals to the US’s 36 in the 2008 Olympic games.
But also make no mistake about this. The people in China are just that, people. They want to be successful and achieve their goals. They want to be able to love and support their families and give their children a better life – in other words, they are just like us. Our lives will most likely be increasingly defined by the interaction between their nation and our own, but if we continue to fight for the ideals that made the US great, and we continue to chase our own individual goals with genuine passion and effort, then not only will Americans be better off, but I believe the Chinese will as well. And sport will continue to play a major role in that.