Aug. 15, 1988
Aug. 15, 1988

Table of Contents
Aug. 15, 1988

Tigers-Red Sox
The 49ers
Special Report
Point After


As this and the following articles reveal, China is fast becoming a world sports power, but at what cost to its people?

There's a story about a venerable Chinese general's getting battle reports. The courier says, "Sixteen thousand Chinese dead, 264 Japanese dead." The old general merely nods. The next day: "Eleven thousand Chinese dead, 197 Japanese." The old general nods. The next day: "Twenty-one thousand Chinese, 308 Japanese." The old general smiles and rubs his hands. "Ah," he says, "pretty soon, no more Japanese."

This is an article from the Aug. 15, 1988 issue

The benign modern version of this tale is that many more Chinese watched the Super Bowl on television this year than did Americans; many more people in Beijing watched the European soccer championship than did people in London or Rome. The Chinese garnered 15 gold medals in the 1984 Olympics. Since '80, the Chinese have broken more than 100 world records and won more than 1,000 titles in international competition. By the year 2000, when the Olympics may be held in Beijing, the U.S., the Soviet Union, the two Germanys and the rest of the current athletic powers may look like so many NIT also-rans before the Sino juggernaut.

Sport, of course, isn't the highest manifestation of civilization, but it surely can be one of the more illusionary. If you can't outbomb everybody else, or outproduce them, or outdress them, or even outdream them, you can rather quickly outplay them. East Germany can't hold a candle to its western brother-state in any competition but Olympic—and China is about 60 times as populous as East Germany.

And what China is doing is no different from what East Germany and a lot of impoverished nations have done. Oh, to be sure, the Chinese pay lip service to the concept of universal exercise for the dear masses. All 200 million of its school children are supposed to pass physical fitness tests at various junctures, and much is made of the fact that a few old folks arise before dawn to perform the martial arts, but the fact is that the government's serious attention and most of its resources are devoted to the elite few who might bring Olympic glory to the People's Republic and thereby make it shine in the eyes of other countries and, more important, in those of its own citizens.

Sports unfamiliar to China—everything from weightlifting to synchronized swimming—are being force-fed to athletes. Scouts roam the land, plucking the most agile kids out of kindergarten and enrolling them in special sports schools (page 70). In Shanghai, China's largest city, with 12 million people, there's an 8,000-seat arena that looks chic enough to be bidding for an NBA expansion franchise. Adjoining it are three smaller gyms and high-tech swimming and diving facilities, but seldom are the hoi polloi permitted inside! Only a few hundred champions and would-be champions get to use these people's edifices for free.

As for the average Zhou, well.... In traveling throughout tourist and unadulterated China alike, I saw perhaps 200 outdoor basketball courts. They were, literally, everywhere. But I never once saw a single person, young or old, male or female, playing basketball. Everybody pedals a bicycle to work, but China doesn't produce any bicycle champions. You see, it's a hard loaf being Chinese. About 20% of those 200 million children who take those fitness tests are malnourished. And relatively few children, even among the well-fed ones, or grown-ups have the energy to devote leisure time to physical amusement. Remember when football developed in the U.S., only rich college boys were inclined toward such a grueling pastime; in America now, it's mostly the white-collar workers who jog. So it should be no surprise that in China the potential athletes must be sorted out of the pain and poverty of daily life.

For "sport," many young Chinese are quite content just to lean over a pool table. These sharps are so numerous that a visitor almost feels it's his duty to summon Harold Hill of The Music Man to China, lest the youth of that great land lose their morals: "China starts with C, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool!"

Altogether, something like 0.4% of the Chinese government's budget is earmarked for sports, which may not sound like much, but it's a considerable sum—approaching $300 million—in a land that to a considerable degree lacks the most basic amenities, like paved roads. In the upscale areas, the average salary is about $27 a month.

Also, a disproportionate amount of the sports budget must be applied to building facilities, training new coaches, generally catching up, because a whole generation of sporting activity was lost to the Cultural Revolution (page 64). Chairman Mao didn't approve of competition in sports anymore than in politics. But then, Chinese culture has never cherished the values of sport, or even physical fitness. There's nothing like the Western athletic tradition—which traces back from the playing fields of Eton to the Greco-Roman games—in China's past. The main indigenous sports are acrobatics and the martial arts, contemplative (read: Confucian), largely uncompetitive disciplines. Warriors were never as much revered in China as in other nations, and the human body is almost never celebrated in Chinese art. Indeed, the Mandarin philosophy, which ruled China for centuries and still permeates its thinking, valued learning and intellectual pursuits and did not separate mind from body—the antithesis of the Western ideal of a strong mind in a strong body.

While rewards for academic achievement are slight—professors make less than taxi drivers—parents, still under the influence of Mandarinism, are deeply concerned that their children do well in the classroom. The parental anxiety is heightened because rarely now does a family have "children"; China's birth-control policies mean that most couples have only a single child, and so the family future is invested in the "little king" or "little queen," as these only children are known, facetiously. The devotion to education is, too, pretty much concentrated on rote learning, so that an interest in sports (or ethics, the social sciences or other fuzzy stuff) seems threatening to many parents, at cross purposes with a real education.

Not only must the Chinese sports hierarchy overcome cultural imperatives, but a strong sense of genetic disadvantage as well. Susan Brownell, 27, a former nationally ranked U.S. heptathlete who was in Beijing doing research for a dissertation on the anthropology of Chinese sport, says that virtually all Chinese athletes are convinced that they're physically inferior to other races; that blacks are dramatically superior to them and Caucasians significantly so. Though there's no scientific evidence to back up this notion, it may serve as the basis for a self-fulfilling defeatism. Certainly the Chinese have enjoyed almost all their successes in so-called technique sports—gymnastics, diving and the like—or in those that are largely a matter of precision and hand-eye coordination—table tennis, riflery, archery, etc.

The exception that proves this rule is the Chinese women's volleyball team of a few years ago. It won a number of international titles, culminating with the 1984 Olympic gold medal. It's revealing, Brownell says, that the team's coach. Yuan Weimin, concentrated as much on philosophy as fundamentals. He had to persuade the team that it could win, that it was all right to win, that China was allowed to win a head-to-head game.

And when the Chinese women scored their first great victory, an upset of the Japanese to win the 1981 world title, there were celebrations throughout China. The fact that the Japanese had been beaten meant as much as the championship. The Chinese not only feel somewhat alien to sport, and physically inferior, but they also have an acute sense of cultural humiliation that the West and Japan have left them behind.

As a consequence, a sophisticated selection process to identify potential champions is obligatory for China. In Changsha, the capital of agricultural Hunan Province, I visited one of the local training centers the selectees attend—such centers are at the base of the pyramid that reaches its apex with the national teams—and talked with gymnasts no older than 11 who had the muscular development of matured teenagers, the discipline of soldiers, the devotion of monks. A little thing named Shendin had been brought in off a farm hundreds of miles away and wouldn't see her parents for months. Don't you miss them? "Oh no, the teachers are very good to me," she said.

For those few who actually succeed on the world stage, there are rewards: better food and clothing, relaxed standards on college entrance exams (student-athletes: how utterly socialistic!), cash bonuses, larger and better (in some cases, exquisite) living quarters. In a crammed nation that must share foul communal toilets, whose executives endure one-room family apartments and where private ownership of a car is beyond hope, sports stars are relatively more privileged than are the West's millionaire athletes. One Ping-Pong champ, Jiang Jialiang, recently purchased a $20,000 apartment, which is an absolute castle in China. By contrast, 21 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, Jung Kuotuan, one of China's greatest table-tennis champions, committed suicide to escape being hounded by Red Guards, who termed him a "sports elitist."

Along these same lines, it appears to be China's saving grace that its memory is as short as its history is long. Hundreds of thousands of Red Guards are now 45 years old or so. They're parents of little kings and queens, and they spend their workdays trying to figure out how to hustle another yuan here and there. What does the Old Guard do at night? It watches sports on TV—there are 80 million sets in China—including a lot of games from the erstwhile evil West. Why, China may not have great plumbing, but it's mature enough to have had some dandy soccer riots, just as Europe has, and when students took to the streets in December 1986, demanding democracy, barely anybody—including those former Red Guards—blinked, because China had recently been edged by South Korea in table tennis, and everybody on the Radio Beijing phone-in shows was calling to bemoan that dreadful turn of events. Never mind the government: Fire the coach!

The Asian Games will be held in Beijing in 1990, but one can get a peek now at what sporting China may look like soon enough by attending the dragon-boat races. They are, to China, what football is to Texas, bullfighting to Spain.

Dragon boats are wonderful to behold. They seat 26. Twenty-three row. One steers. One bangs the gong. One beats the drum. While the Chinese have been racing these boats for centuries, it wasn't until 1984 that a Western-style national championship was held. This year more than 300,000 spectators showed up for the three-day men's and women's championships in June, around the monsoon season, in, fortuitously, this Year of the Dragon. They were staged in Yueyang, in Hunan Province, and nothing like the dragon-boat races had ever been seen there before. Yueyang is a city of almost half a million souls—about the same size as metropolitan Mobile, Ala.—but in China that's just a wide spot in the road. Yueyang doesn't even possess a commercial airport, and express trains dash through.

But what a time was had by all! The poor peasants, who could get in for as little as three yuan (about 80¬¨¬®¬¨¢), were so gaga they barely noticed the monsoon mud they sloshed through. The vendors sold souvenirs and knickknacks and all manner of local vittles. One sign actually said FAST FOOD in Mandarin. That was a dish of rice and vegetables: six yuan. The commercial sponsors of the event had the right to erect billboards, just as in your local ballpark. One was for birth control, a subject Chinese are never allowed to forget. Imagine, if you will: "Hi, football fans, today's game is brought to you by beer, tires and birth control."

The competitors' area had more the air of a Tuesday night softball game than of a national championship, with the young men and women drifting about, stepping barefoot around broken bottles in the mud, flirting a bit, sharing a cigarette. Most male competitors smoked, just as almost 60% of all Chinese men do. This worries the government some, but since tobacco is the largest commercial source of revenue in China, the authorities are hamstrung: China is, economically, just a very large Winston-Salem.

As relaxed as the dragon-boat racers appeared to be, the competition was quite crucial for many of them. Zhou Yungchi, a 45-year-old grandfather who was the captain of the hometown Yueyang boat in the 1,000-meter event, exulted after the second heat, for the mayor of Yueyang had promised 1,000 yuan apiece to those representatives of his city who made the finals, as Zhou's boat had. Zhou is a farmer who lives with nine other members of his extended family, all of whom together pull in the relatively handsome sum of 5,000 yuan ($1,350) a year. Here was a 20% bonus just for taking a couple of months to practice after work for a boat race.

After the races, we made our way south to the Guangdong Province and the city of Shunde, whose women had won the 1,000 meters. It took several days to reach Shunde; the only passage we could arrange was aboard a "hard bed" sleeper, a smoky, fetid overnight train that would make a rush-hour stint on the New York subway seem like a trip on the good ship Lollipop.

The Shunde women had come home on an earlier run of the same train and were already practicing for another dragon-boat meet in Hong Kong when we arrived. They, too, had been promised 1,000 yuan each if they excelled, and although they had not yet received their bonuses, they expressed no concern that the authorities would stiff them. And the authorities weren't likely to. The local sports commission chief, a Mr. He, explained that his annual budget for dragon-boat racing is 340,000 yuan—just short of $100,000. This figure was astonishing, for here was a county allotting the sort of money for dragon boating that much richer U.S. counties dispense to high schools for their entire athletic programs.

The Shunde women rowers demonstrated what the distaff volleyballers first showed, that gender knows no double standard in Chinese sport. Men and women competitors are paid the same daily stipends when they take time off from work to practice, and women are encouraged to compete. "My husband supports me thoroughly," Chen Miaovha, Shunde's 36-year-old captain and drummer, told me, "and all the others' husbands support them, too."

There are two practical reasons why the Chinese treat their female athletes equitably. First, almost half the gold medals in international competition go to women, and the Chinese want to win, whatever, whoever. Second, because most Chinese women marry relatively late and then are done with their reproductive chores in less than a year, China has an edge over more fecund nations: Its women have more time to practice sports and tend to stay at them longer.

While all Chinese counties have sports commissions and some sort of training facilities, most world-class athletes come from the easternmost coastal regions, from an arc that stretches down from Beijing through Shanghai to Guangzhou (and Hong Kong, when it returns to Chinese dominion in 1997). We are used to neatly dividing Third World nations into rural and urban categories, but in China, where every available smidgen of land is planted, this doesn't obtain.

Shunde, for example, may still be 40% agricultural and may still compete in the national peasant games, but it's demonstrably wealthier and more sophisticated than a city of a million people, like Changsha, in the interior. The divergence between coastal and interior societies was most strikingly apparent at two "rural" primary schools. One was in Meiluo County, a backwater in Hunan; the other was Xishan Primary School in Shunde. The children in the interior were dressed like bumpkins, had shabby athletic equipment and could barely get the Ping-Pong balls in play. At Xishan the children dressed very much like Americans, enjoyed first-rate sports facilities and played Ping-Pong with amazing skill. When I was greeting a bunch of little kids at Xishan, the devil made me shout out, "Gimme five!" and, roaring their approval, all the children jumped up, laughing, to give me practiced high fives. In Meiluo County, only one older boy knew who Ronald Reagan was. All of the kids at Xishan could identify Reagan, and some also knew who Gorbachev was. Still, none in either place had heard of Mickey Mouse, Pelè, Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson or Jesus Christ. And at both schools, everybody was studying hard for exams, though you don't get bumped off the school team if you flunk. Make of all that whatever you please.

Americans who visit China tend to limit themselves to touring the Forbidden City and the Great Wall and enjoying the barbecue and miniature golf at the Sheraton. Those sorts of things. What they experience is no more than a boutique China. But there's much more of China that can't and shouldn't be romanticized in the way that many visitors to China ooh and ah about it. Backwardness remains China's pervasive trait. And then there are those richer, more advanced, more open areas where the insidious West meets the inscrutable East. And insidiousness is winning out. Already, in Guangzhou, one of China's wealthiest cities, there are reports of spreading drug use, gambling and prostitution, old evils the Communist revolution supposedly stamped out, evils that had been relegated to the West. And, of course, there are sports fans.

But, even as China must struggle within itself to catch up to the modern world and not destroy itself in the process, sports can be one instrument of pride and identity for its people, one signal to the outside world that China is advancing. Sun Yat-sen, the early-20th-century revolutionary who set the table for Mao, once said, "The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit...they are just a heap of loose sand." So if the Chinese see that they are champions, perhaps that fact will serve as the first sign to them that they are a nation.

Americans can so often be condescending, mocking less-advantaged lands that would try to purchase some international victory in sports. But the U.S. is no better, intra-nationally, with undistinguished universities attempting to enhance their reputations through football, or fiscally distressed cities sacrificing the unwell and unclothed for new sky boxes. All the rest of the world would be big league. Why not China?