By Chan King-cheung –
Those who have followed the 2016 Rio Olympics will take note of the failure of the Chinese national team to grab a gold medal on the first day of the Games. Mainland athletes are the favourites in the swimming and shooting games on the first day. Both have missed the target. That was a bad start. It was not until the second day that Zhang Mengxue won China’s first gold medal in the 10-metre air pistol event.
This is the ninth summer Olympics China has contested. Of them, there are only two Olympics the national team has scored nil on the tally of gold medal on the first day. The other one was the 2000 Sydney Olympics. China finished the Sydney Games with 38 gold medals, coming on third. Judging from that, the national team may not be able to get a bonanza of medals at the 2016 Olympics. In terms of gold medals, the 2008 Beijing Olympics was the peak time for the China team, bagging 51 gold, 21 silver and 28 bronze. The combined total was 100, putting China on top of the list of medal winners. The United States team only got 36 gold in 2008, trailing China. The China team has slipped in the 2012 London Olympics, pocketing 28 gold. US grabbed 46 gold, surpassing China again.
Apart from the advantage of playing at home, China’s success in the 2008 Beijing Olympics could be attributed to the utmost performance of their state-run system that pools together the strengths of the whole nation for sports. It has helped elevate the country to the superpower of gold medals. But the shortcomings of the system are equally clear. Calls for an overhaul, or even an abandonment of the state-run system have grown after the Beijing Olympics. Under the state-run system, the pursuit of gold medals at all cost is the prime objective. A rumour widely circulated in the mainland is that each gold medal cost 600 million yuan.
The mathematics goes like this. China spent a total of 20 billion yuan for contesting the Athens Olympics, scooping 32 gold medals. The cost of each therefore hit 600 million yuan. The price for a gold medal is sky-high. Is it money worth spending? Olympics is the premium international sports event. It is an important battle ground for countries in times of peace. Ranking Number One in the list of gold medals is a honour for the country. It is also an opportunity for nations to show their muscles and their superior position over others. China and the US have been fighting for the Number One position in the last few Olympics. The rivalry between the two nations in sports and in the political and economic spheres has been equally shining.
The US does not practise a state-run sports system. But the United States Olympic Committee has the same target of winning more gold medals when they spent a huge amount of money in sports. According to a Bloomberg report headlined “Money for medals: Inside the Performance-driven funding of US Olympics team,” five sports that got the highest number of gold medals have received the highest amount of funding since 2004. The total funding reached US$248 million. They are swimming, track and field, skiing, gymnastics and speed skiing. The report said the US Olympic Committee seems to have less interest in funding sports that have lesser chance in winning medals. Private donations to those sports are also understandably low.
Mainland media said results of the China team in the ongoing Olympics would determine how the country reforms the state-run sports system. Regardless of where the reform is going to, no money no gold.
Chan King-cheung is a veteran journalist. He writes on political and economic issues in Hong Kong and China. This article was translated from his regular column in the Chinese-language Ming Pao.
Photo: Picture taken from official website of the China Olympic Committee