Opinion | Sport as religion—China's peacetime revolution
By Philip Yeung, university teacher
Once mocked as the Sick Man of East Asia, the Chinese are the modern-day Spartans in sports. China is now an undisputed international sports powerhouse. In the current Asian Games, it is the absolute run-away leader in the winner's table, whose medal haul is more than the next 10 countries combined.
But the medal numbers only tell half the story. There is a fundamental and mental change that underlines the transformation. A fitness craze has swept the whole nation. Even the elderly are into health-inducing public square dancing in every corner of the country.
China is a reinvented country in four big ways: prowess in breathtaking sports, life-sweetening technology, mindboggling infrastructure, and wholesale poverty alleviation. No government on earth has done more in ushering in such earth-shattering changes. The Games itself has gone green, being powered by photovoltaic panels from a faraway region.
Often, these four areas are intertwined. Infrastructure and technology have both opened up remote regions economically and connected the country commercially. Sport itself is a proven escape route from poverty. China is awash with stories of dirt-poor athletes who rose to stardom and mega-wealth. Superstar Olympic gold medalist gymnast Li Ning, for one, is now the proud owner of a global sportswear company that bears his name. Platform diving gold medalist like Quo Jing-jing has happily married into a fabled tycoon family and doing life-changing charity work. The record-breaking Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang is one of its most bankable athletes.
In a country without war, many of China's national heroes are sports heroes. Indeed, the major milestones in its development are marked by its hosting of the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, and now the Asian Games.
In China, success in international sports is all-encompassing: It's personal pride, local glory and national triumph rolled into one. A gold medal winner goes home to a tumultuous fireworks-exploding hero's welcome, followed by a celebratory communal feast. There are gifts galore for medal winners--a new house or a new car courtesy of the car maker or a grateful village. The faces of sports heroes are plastered across national papers and their rags-to-riches stories consume an entire nation. They are bigger household names than prominent provincial leaders or movie stars. Unlike the West, athletic achievements in China are not mere personal victories. They galvanize an entire nation. The homecoming for sports heroes is far more heart-pounding and tear-jerking than the traditional Chinese festivals.
Despite a similar-size population, India and China are a study in contrast. The former is a minnow, while China is a whale in global sports contests. No other country has parlayed sport more positively into tangible benefit for its people, driven by a sense of discipline and national purpose. China's current hero-worship centers on a teenage sensation platform diver Quan Hongchan who brought home the gold in her event. She's looked up to as a hero-from-zero figure even though she is barely out of her diapers.
It still remains a mystery of how China is able to turn the hosting of unaffordable international sports extravaganzas into financial bonanzas, whereas some other host countries ended up saddled with a crushing debt load and white elephant sports structures. When the final curtains come down, China basks in an afterglow, not a pall of anti-climax.
There is something else. Hosting major sports events is like extending a hand of friendship, even as it spurs athletes to go faster, higher, stronger and more united. The whole thing runs like clockwork. The secret of its success is that the whole country is emotionally engaged in playing host. They bring out the red carpets without bringing in the red ink. It is soft power at its finest. With a poignant thought for war-torn Ukraine in a faraway continent, China is sending the world a message for peace: let's meet fair and square in the sports arena, not in the killing fields. There are far too many wars, not enough sporting tugs-of-war.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.
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