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Chinese Athletes Embody Beijing’s Broader Aspirations

August 14, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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After a century of national aspirations, China's ascent into an international power has influenced its athletes' training to win gold medals during the Olympics. A professor and former athlete offers insight into how Chinese athletes have prepared for the Summer Games.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, how China cultivates its athletes for the Olympic Games. It comes from Susan Brownell, an author of many books about Chinese sports and a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

She was a nationally ranked track-and-field athlete in the United States in the 1980s, and she ran track at Beijing University while studying there. She’s currently a Fulbright scholar at the Beijing Sport University.

She spoke with Ray Suarez yesterday from Beijing.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Brownell, now that we’re about a week into the competition, would you say that China is well on its way to achieving its stated goals for these Olympics?

SUSAN BROWNELL, Author: Yes. I would say that China is well on its way to achieving the goals it set for itself for this Olympic Games. The first goal was to hold a high-quality and unique Olympic Games, and I would say that, so far, these games have certainly been unique and at least high quality technologically.

And whether they’re considered to be successful in the end will depend on a lot of things. I think the Chinese are now better prepared to accept the fact that there will be criticisms of human rights and the political system, and they’re just hoping that everything else will go so well that, in the end, that will outweigh the political considerations.

China's pursuit of gold

RAY SUAREZ: Has China pursued the medal count goal in a way that's somewhat unprecedented, when you compare it with, let's say, the old Soviet Union or the United States or the East Germans?

SUSAN BROWNELL: Certainly, since China won the bid for the Beijing Games in 2001, they have very actively pursued winning the most gold medals in their own Olympic Games hosted in their own country. So they have really put quite a lot of effort into that.

But I would say that the effort has been a bit more varied, maybe, than what the East Germans did. I mean, you know, in addition to just investing into the training centers and bringing in foreign coaches for the athletes, they've employed sports psychology on a large scale for the first time, which they did not do before the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

So they've really pursued a diverse strategy that is probably not that similar to the old East German system.

RAY SUAREZ: Part of China's plan to win medals is something called "Project 119." What was it designed to do?

SUSAN BROWNELL: Project 119 involved identifying medals that seemed to be weak with the idea that, if you invested more money and effort into those sports, it would be more likely to produce a payoff in terms of Olympic medals.

And rowing is probably the best example, a sport that was fairly weak in China, and then a big, fancy national rowing center was established, and money was invested in rowing. And in this Olympic Games, we'll see how that investment paid off.

Social mobility through sports

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, tell us about the nationwide sports school system. How does it work?

SUSAN BROWNELL: The Chinese sports system consists of about 3,000 sports schools of different types. So the sports schools at the local level are spare-time schools where children can go after they attend their regular classes.

Then, if they move up the scale, if they're good enough, they'll be recruited into a sports boarding school. And there they have exited the regular educational system and they board at the school where their education may not be -- may not get the attention that probably it should get.

And from that point, maybe they will be recruited onto the provincial team. The provincial and municipal teams are really the backbone of the Chinese sports system. And once you get onto that team, you're essentially a professional athlete, although they don't like to use that word. They prefer to call them "specialized athletes" and to think that the financial aid they get is something like a college scholarship would be in the United States.

And then, finally, there are sports where there are national teams. And those are sports where the best provincial athletes are further recruited to a national centralized team, which will train either in Beijing or in training centers around the country.

RAY SUAREZ: The way I understand it, these schools basically make the athlete into a ward of the state for as long as they remain in the system. Is there an advantage to families who were able to place a child into the national sports system?

SUSAN BROWNELL: Education is really highly valued by Chinese parents. And for that reason, well-educated parents and parents from white-collar backgrounds are usually not in favor of their children joining a sports boarding school.

So most athletes come from peasant backgrounds or worker backgrounds, except maybe for a few sports which are very popular here, such as badminton and table tennis, it is said will be able to recruit children from white-collar backgrounds more so than other sports.

Certain sports are called "the bitter sports," such as weight-lifting, long distance running, race walking. And those sports are considered to be sort of physically uncomfortable. And those are the ones that typically are -- the athletes almost all come from peasant backgrounds.

So basically, in China, the sports system is seen as a means of social mobility. I know there's a stereotype in the Western media that it's a system that ruins lives, but, in fact, the perception in China is that, in most cases, it's a ticket to a better life, especially for peasants who are given a residence permit once they make the provincial sports team.

And this is really a big advantage in life for a peasant who comes from a rural background where he's held to that background through the residence permit system, a rural residence permit.

Chinese identity and the Olympics

RAY SUAREZ: You know, it's hard for us to watch it from the United States and fully perceive what it is these games mean to China, since we tend to look at this event through such an American lens. But if a Chinese citizen were here to explain how their national aspirations are riding on this, what would they say?

SUSAN BROWNELL: Well, it's commonly said in China that the Beijing Olympic Games are the realization of China's 100-year dream. And that refers to the fact that it was about 1907 or 1908 that patriots who were either educated by the YMCA or at least influenced by the North American YMCA started calling for China to host an Olympic Games.

And 100 years ago, what that meant to them was that it would symbolize that China has taken its place on the world stage as a strong nation among other strong nations.

And so when Chinese people today talk about the realization of that 100-year dream, what they mean is that it took that long, it took 100 hard years, long years of hard work for China to finally take what they see as its rightful place among the great nations of the world.

And I think it is hard for Americans to understand, because, on the one hand, we really have never suffered national humiliation to the degree that China did, starting with the Opium Wars in the 1840s and the Japanese occupation before World War II.

I mean, this history of national humiliation is one that is taught to every school child and is important to every Chinese person's, you know, sense of national identity.

So that is the background for the idea that the Beijing Olympic Games are sort of redemption for the suffering that China has suffered for over 100 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Brownell, thanks for joining us. Enjoy the rest of the games.

SUSAN BROWNELL: Oh, thanks a lot. I'm looking forward to the games, and I think that the sports will be great, and the scene surrounding the sports fields will be interesting to watch.

JIM LEHRER: For more on the Olympics and China's image around the world, visit our Web site at PBS.org, and then scroll down to Online NewsHour Reports.