At the end of the 19th Asian Games, the medal table, unsurprisingly, has three familiar names at the top: China, Japan and South Korea. All three have featured in the top three in every edition since the 1978 Games, and while Japan and Korea have often swapped second and third place, China has rarely, if ever, relinquished pole position.
China debuted in the Asian Games only in 1974 (the Games started in 1951) and it took them two editions to prepare. The “warm-up” meant a third and second place finish in 1974 (106 medals) and 1978 (151 medals), and once China finished on top in 1982, they have proven to be an immovable rock.
Hangzhou marked the 11th consecutive Games in which Chinese athletes proved to be the continent’s best, racking up 383 medals, making it the second most productive Asian Games since Guangzhou 2010, when they collected 415 medals. In terms of gold medals won, this was their best haul with 201, surpassing the 199 gold medals they won in 2010.
This year, China won more medals than Japan and South Korea combined, reaffirming its status as the continent’s leading sporting power. Domination has once again raised the tired question: What makes China so good at sports?
“It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s like writing a book,” said Mark Dreyer, a journalist turned author who has written a book on the topic. Titled “Sports Superpower: An Insider’s View of China’s Quest to Be the Best,” Dreyer’s book sought to answer the million-dollar question. But achieving a granular understanding of the topic requires a deep dive into the Chinese social and cultural ethos, where sport is not really a recreational activity but a relentless exercise in national brand-building.
“In the Chinese way of life, sports, business and politics are deeply intertwined. You can’t talk about sports without talking about the other two topics,” said Dreyer, an Englishman who spent 15 years in China.
“The Chinese sports system is a throwback to the Soviet-era socialist system. It’s a bit military in nature, so to speak,” he said. This means that children are “selected” from primary school by scouts based on their physical traits and enrolled in government or private clubs to play a sport. “In most cases, kids don’t have decision-making power. They play what they’re told,” Dreyer said.
The regulated sports system is manifested in a fairly solid and widespread network of sports schools that form the basis of talent pipelines. The scouts select children, sometimes as young as six, and send them to a sports school. Each city, on average, has at least one such school that deals with either a specific sport (diving, gymnastics and table tennis are the most common) or multiple sports. Children usually train there until high school, after which they graduate from provincial sports schools. There are also 36 sports universities in 22 provinces.
“At each level, the competition multiplies. You have to beat literally hundreds of children to enter the provincial schools. From there, the next step is to enter the national sports schools, where the best of Chinese sports come together “Athletes are usually selected from that group,” said Audrey Tso, executive director of the India China Economic and Cultural Council.
“There are more than 2000 youth sports schools in China. Among them, in 2019, 370 have been named national key bases and national bases by the State General Administration of Sports. As of now, the situation of sports schools is not very good , but their status cannot currently be discussed. In national sports schools, the place of final preparation of athletes, there is an average of one coach per athlete,” he added.
A program of this type obviously involves significant budgetary outlays and the figures are mind-boggling. “More than 120 million yuan was used for the Chinese sports delegation and support operations for the Beijing Winter Olympics and Hangzhou Asian Games,” Tso said.
“This year’s budget report of the General Administration of Sports has added a new Olympic Glory Plan. It is estimated that a budget of about 650 million yuan will be reserved for this project. The total revenue and expenditure budget of the fiscal allocation is 4.4 billion yuan, and the special anti-doping project amounts to more than 40 million yuan.
“It is no secret that over the years Chinese regimes have seen sports as a means to assert their soft power status. Beijing 2008 was seen as China’s big coming-out party to the West, while Hangzhou 2023 is a way to show that the country has really recovered from Covid,” Dreyer said.
In a top-down society like China, sports development, thanks to its innate link to national honor, has always been the state’s pet project. Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping’s interest in football is well documented, as is his dream of China qualifying for the World Cup, winning a World Cup and hosting a World Cup. That may all be a long shot, but a well-tended soccer field near the Lin’an Sports Culture and Exhibition Center, in a quiet suburb 70 kilometers from the city, reflects that ambition.
While there are legitimate concerns about the lack of holistic development of athletes under China’s unforgiving system, such questions are inevitably answered by pointing to the medal table. And on that front, China is the undisputed champion.