By Bhavna Singh
When Zhang Boling initiated the Nankai system of schools to rid China of its image as the ‘sick man of Asia,’ he could have barely imagined China becoming the next sports superpower. Yet this seems almost a possibility today. Bagging a total of 100 medals, China’s performance at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was highly impressive to say the least, and it is determined to replicate the grandeur of its Beijing success in London with already an impressive launch. The Chinese sportstars are out of their dens and ready to execute their historic mission of ‘bringing glory to their nation.’ An issue worth pondering is whether the Olympics are really serving the cause of harmonious international development as stipulated in the Olympic charter or have they become just another plinth for a ‘covert cultural war’ amongst nations guided by jingoistic nationalism. It is being attempted to understand China’s aspirations in the Olympics and what they mean for China as a nation.
The Olympics Legacy
Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Sports have been associated with the twin ideologies of nationalism and communism. To begin with, mass sports were a major trend and sports were to be endorsed primarily to “build healthy citizens” who could serve the aim of national defence. However, the attitude changed with the recognition of the PRC during the Helsinki games. The government then became concerned about national representation and the focus shifted towards creating well-trained athletes instead of a ‘healthy nation.’ A significant milestone for the PRC was its international recognition as the legitimate entrant in games instead of the ROC/Taiwan after 1979. Ever since, it encouraged a system of elite sports, in most cases sustained by the state itself.
The Beijing Olympics proved to be an important milestone, giving China the much needed opportunity to showcase not only the talent of its sportstars but also an extravaganza unparalleled by any other country. China seems smug in retrospect, considering it had to battle a storm of controversies that questioned the freedom of media and security issues, even human rights issues related to the Tibetan Autonomous region (TAR). The London Olympic Committee is similarly under the scanner now, as reports of high military surveillance (necessitated apparently by prevention of terrorist attacks) not necessarily required by the London standards have come to fore. Added to it are the transportation difficulties that the citizens are facing on a day-to-day basis. In terms of the ceremonial demonstrations, the London Olympics opening ceremony though stunning, did not surpass the Chinese precedent, and the media is having a heyday with outcries on ‘securitization of the London Olympics’ given the heavy deployment of military equipments inside the city by the authorities.
However, the Olympics also represent the forum for China’s as the battle for recognition as the legitimate singular nation. The International Olympic Committee recently awarded the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee for being one of the top three donors of sports clothing for refugees along with the British and the Qatar Olympic Associations; clearly accepting it as different from the mainland. However, a more significant currently for China are its athletes and their performance.
In a recent survey, the China Daily identified the 2012 Olympic hopefuls, along with China’s major bets for the season, though conceding that the ground advantage it enjoyed as a host country will not be replicable at the London Olympics. Some prominent contenders of the 380 member team headed by sporting official, Zhai Zheng Hua, who are expected to make their mark in the history of Olympics include Lin Dan, the numero uno badminton player, Yi Jianlian, the best basket-ball player, and a host of gymnasts and badminton players. Despite the mellowed down voice of not harbouring any intentions of dominance at the London Olympics, the officials cheer –song ‘the beats of China, move the world’ reflect that their aspirations are no less either. Slogans like – ‘Linsanity,’ ‘Lincredible,’ ‘Linderella’ have come to be associated with Jeremy Shu-How Lin, a Chinese American from Taiwan, which shows the surging popularity of Chinese idols nationally as well as internationally.
Rise of the Rightful Heir
As the games gain rigour, the party’s projection of the Chinese nation as well as he national project as envisaged by teh common citizens is appearing on the highly active blogosphere. While many citizens believe that China’s ‘time has come’ and it is only natural that others recognize China as a major sports power, several others believe that China has created a history (2008) that shall remain unrivaled for times to come.
However, China is still incessantly involved in an attempt to amalgamate the Chinese players of Taiwanese origin in its goal of nationalist re-unification and is also struggling with its desire to project those athletes who help to attain a better international stature. This is reflected in the fact that Yi Jianlian was chosen to represent the torch overriding the popular choice of Li Na by the weibo netizens. At the same time it is also facing domestic opposition on the system of training and the scale of disproportionate investments that China juts into its sports system at the cost of delivering several basic necessities to its needy citizens. The Tibetan rights activists are also keeping China on its toes by making a presence at the Olympic stadiums.
Despite these odds, China is determined to make history and emerge as a global sports superpower. For it, the Olympics present not only an opportunity for the realization of the ‘nation’s dreams’ but also a political structure within which China can assert its national rise and international credentials.
Research Officer, CRP, IPCS
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