China, the Olympic Sports Superpower and how it works
A conversation with Mark Dreyer, author of Sporting Superpower, for an insider’s view of China’s quest to be a leading sporting nation, the evolution of its society at the grassroots and what it takes to lead the nation into the next millennium.
Beijing-based Dreyer has been chronicling the developments in China’s sports scene for the past 15 years, armed with his vast experience as a sports journalist in the UK and US.
His book, Sporting Superpower: An insider's view on China's quest to be the best, offers a glimpse into the peculiarities of the Chinese sports regime that, over decades, has managed to produce hundreds of gold medallists through immense sacrifice and sheer national ambition.
Dreyer observes that the same rigid system that has catapulted virtual unknowns into fame and fortune needs a tectonic shift to win the hearts of the next generation of athletes.
With the country’s newfound prosperity, families are increasingly reluctant to entrust their children to the care of the state-run sports factory. The onus is on the government to tap into the passion of its rising athletes and create a solid base of sportsmen who choose their own sport and strive to be the best in their field.
Dreyer is a well-known expert in Chinese sports, occasionally appearing in the media to give his insights and opinions. Before coming to China in 2008, he trailed the UK soccer scene for Sky Sports and later on for Fox Soccer in New York.
The following key points were discussed:
- Chinese society through the lens of sports
- Sports that China tends to be competitive in
- cliché China’s changing sports culture
- On what it took for China to succeed in past games
- Is China better in group or individual sports?
- Widened search for sports talent in the regions
- How successful China’s sports programs have been
- Acceptance of foreign talent in Chinese sports
- Role of stars in Chinese sports system
- How China’s first Formula One driver will likely play out in the system
- What stars think about China’s sports system
- The kind of system that will bring out the most gold medalists
- How Chinese sports, politics and business are intertwined
The following is the edited transcript of the interview:
Emmanuel Daniel (ED): There is much that we know about China as an economic superpower. But there is also much that we can learn from China, the sports superpower. Today, China is second only to the United States as the world’s foremost sporting nation, calculated on the basis of its medals tally at the Olympics. But there is much that other countries can learn from how China built that capability. Sports gives us a glimpse of not just the game, but the society in which it is cultivated. The relationship between the state and the grassroots in society. The ability of the state to cultivate the full potential of its people.
Equally, it gives us a glimpse of the issues that the country is likely to face in the future. Many of China’s individual sport stars want to do their own thing today. We also learn from the sports that China is not good at, despite working so hard at it.
Mark Dreyer is an English journalist who moved to China during the 2008 Olympics and never left. He has spent nearly 15 years in the trenches, tracking China’s sports industry. He attends and writes about a wide cross-section of games and events across the country, giving foreign media an insider’s perspective of China’s sports industry. He knows many of the leading sportsmen, coaches and teams personally.
He recently published his own book “Sporting Superpower: An insider's view on China's quest to be the best”. It’s an unvarnished description of how China’s sports machinery works. I liked it that he discussed many of the issues facing China’s sports industry candidly.
I caught up with Mark in Beijing, literally on the eve of the 2022 Winter Olympics. We talked about sports and society broadly. He gave me his insights into where he thought Chinese sports is today, where it is heading and the issues it will face in the future.
ED: Mark, it’s a lovely winter's evening here in Beijing, and you live in a nice part of town. It's a real pleasure to meet you after having read your amazing book, “Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View of China's Quest to Be the Best”. I actually came across your book just about a week and read it over Chinese New Year. It was a good, fast read because you told it in storytelling form. And I absolutely wanted to speak with you. You've been here since 2008, you've got a feel of Chinese sports.
Chinese society through the lens of sports
I'd like to do this conversation with you to speak a little bit about the book. And, in fact, the book captures your entire experience from the time you arrived up to this year. You've written the chapters in year format, so it's like a chronology as well as substance of sports. The main reason I wanted to talk to you is because sports gives us a feel of the grassroots, the ground, the substance of a country. I want to be able to capture that in this conversation with you, at a big level.
China, one of the two major sporting nations of the world, one diametrically different from the other. And China, the grassroots, the everyday man, and what sports and his own personal ambitions are. Let's start by asking you: tell us when did the China stories start with you, and sports in general, your background and your writing.
Mark Dreyer (MD): Well, I used to work for Sky Sports in the UK as a football soccer reporter for about five years. And then, I met my now wife. We were dating at the time; she was based in New York and I was in London. So, we were kind of long distance for a while. But I moved to New York and worked for Fox Sports or what was then the Fox Soccer channel. So, I stayed in the same sport but also covered some other things like tennis, golf and some other sports too. And then, towards the end of 2007, one of the series that I'd been working on for Fox had just wrapped. And my wife was setting up a company that was partly based in the US and partly based here. The Olympics were kind of looming on the horizon. I’d never covered the Olympics, but I'd always grown up watching them and was a huge fan. And we just thought: let's go for a year. What's the worst that can happen? We can move back. Fifteen years later, still here and there's another Olympics literally a day away.
Sports that China tends to be competitive in
ED: And we are here right now, on the day before the Winter Olympics that China is hosting. Let's break down this conversation to keep it very compact, and at the same time, cover as much ground as possible. China, at the 2021 or 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, 38 gold medals. A foreigner looking at China will say this country is way up at the top there. Break it down for us. Tell us a little bit about the sports that China tends to be good at and one sport that China is struggling with. In fact, I do notice in your book that a big section of it is on soccer. It’s a big deal here; it's a big angst in the Chinese psyche.
MD: Yes. I mean, just this week, China lost three-one to Vietnam, basically the only team in the qualifying group that everyone thought: that's definitely a given that we're going to win that one. Mathematically, then, out of contention for the 2022 World Cup. We knew they weren't going to qualify.
But there was yet another outpouring of angst, depression, almost some sort of dry humour. People are joking about can we really reach a new low when it comes to soccer. On the one end of the scale, you've got tremendous Olympic success when it comes to gold medals. They were winning the medal table for the longest time. The US overhauled them in Tokyo on the very last day. That was against all expectations. We thought the US was probably going to win it fairly comfortably because it was very close to the end.
So, top two, when it comes to those sports, they're often in sports that people don't play. China gets a lot of weightlifting golds and shooting golds. It's not sport for the masses. So, at the popular level, what are the popular sports? Well, soccer obviously is number one. And China knows there’s only one gold medal at the Olympics for that. And, of course, the World Cup is more important than the Olympics when it comes to football. So, there's only so much that it can do when it's focused on doing well and maximising its potential at the Olympics. But deep down, to the country, it’s slightly hollow winning all those golds because the people will trade that in a second for a competitive football team.
China’s changing sports culture
ED: Is it really hollow?Is the Chinese national pride now past Olympic golds?
MD: It's a great question and it’s really complicated. I've noticed shifts kind of go one way and then back the other way. Let's talk about these games right now. Winter sports. China's not as dominant. It's probably going to finish about 10th in the medal table. Respectable, but it's not a powerhouse nation.
It's not top one or two, it's certainly not top five either. It could be top five, maybe a few Winter Olympic cycles down the road. But right now, China's 10th in the world, thereabouts.
And so, the narrative has changed to Xi Jinping. The president has already said ‘I don't care how many gold medals China wins’. Now, is that true? Well, what he means is, ‘let's not focus on gold at all costs’, which is historically what China has done, particularly in the summer sports.
So, they're trying to sort of reframe that narrative and redefine success to mean something like: ‘let's have an athlete in every single event’. What they have is 176 athletes at these games, more than double the 80 athletes they had four years ago in Pyeongchang in South Korea. So that, in some sense, represents tremendous progress and tremendous growth of the winter sports industry as a whole, as represented by China's elite athletes. Does it convert into medal success? This year, probably not. But it might do in the future. When it comes to winter success, they've redefined it. But what I will say is, because once you've tried to set that message, ‘we're not about the medals’, then, of course, behind the scenes, you've got people working furiously to still win as many medals as possible.
And so, the narrative within the sports industry and within the sports authorities is how many gold medals are we going to win.
The foreign coaches are brought in, and they're basically given a task winning gold medals. And you're a cross country coach, and you're like, that's just not going to happen. We're not going to compete with the Norwegians and the other European nations.
A top 30 results for some of the Chinese athletes would be phenomenal. It will be really good and impressive for how far they've come.
But you still got that summer Olympic context where you're basically winning handfuls of golds. And so, what's embarrassing for China is not actually. If you look at the context, it’s a fantastic result. But reframing that, getting the whole population on board with that is a challenge.
On what it took for China to succeed in past games
ED: What you just said about what Xi Jinping said, ‘let's not focus on the gold’ actually is consistent with what he's been saying about common prosperity like, ‘we want participation’, grassroots and feel of the ground.
Just talk me through a little bit of the sports that China has done well in and how did they get to the gold stage? In the individual sports like gymnastics and weightlifting. There's a handful of sports that they've mastered the technique; they have aced the game. What did it take for China to ace the game?
MD: They've been very strategic when it comes to the Olympics in particular. And it's not to say that other countries have not been. You can probably tell from my accent that I come from the UK. Great Britain has been very strategic in terms of funding in sports where it thinks it has medal potential. This is not new and specific to China. But China has, if not unlimited funds, pretty good resources when they want to allocate it.
So, 75% of China's gold medals in the Olympics, historically, have come from just six sports. There's all the usual ones you'd expect: table tennis, gymnastics. Diving is one that they often get a clean sweep in.
But they've also targeted the less competitive sports. Let me give you an example from winter sports: the sliding sports, so that's bobsleigh and luge and skeleton. There are a few 100 elite level sliding athletes in the world. It's just not something that people do in great numbers, right? It's very expensive, you need a bobsled track which is incredibly hard to find and expensive.
So, basically, if you're starting from zero, that's something that you can catch up with a lot of money and resources and funding. And they've got all the front coaches in and all the technology into building their own sled using rocket-powered type, all the simulations and so on. Compare that to soccer, where you have literally billions of people around, and at the top level, you have incredibly competitive players. The standard there is just harder to catch up. Whereas it's not unrealistic to think that four or eight years from now, China could be winning a lot of medals in their sliding sports. I think it's probably too soon for them to do it. The 2022 Olympics, we'll see some progress.
There's a couple of athletes who are thereabouts. And one of the female athletes, one of the two flag bearers for these games, is a skeleton athlete. I don't think she's going to get on the podium, frankly, but I think they see her as the future and, potentially, four or eight years from now, she could get there.
Is China better in group or individual sports?
ED: So there's, there's a little bit of state planning involved, right? In terms of allocating resources and the technology, as you say, the bobsleighing and so on. And then, just working the system, they arrive at a certain skill level.
This is a country of 1.5 billion people. If you take soccer or field hockey for example, is there a kind of a divide between team games and individual games? Is it fair to say that China tends to be good at individual sports but not very good at team sports?
MD: It's a cliché to some extent, but often the clichés and the stereotypes are based in at least some truth. It's partly the way that you train for these sports. For example, if you take 50,000 gymnasts and stick them in China's state run gymnastics factory, the top one is basically going to win Olympic gold. That's how it works. Or diving. It's not just as simple as they turn out. There are other nations too. But it's been very successful in the sports where you are trying to do the same thing with repetition. And you have it in such numbers that it doesn't matter about the training systems.
For team sports, it's very different. Because just think about it if you're on the soccer field. You could be technically brilliant but if you do the same thing every time, you always have the same move, you're quite easy to defend against. That doesn't apply when you're doing a gymnastics routine, or when you're doing a diving routine, when you want to be exactly as you were in the previous one. Again, it is a little bit cliché to sort of say China can't excel in team sports. There are some exceptions. In women's volleyball, they've seen some success although not at Tokyo. China has a women's soccer team that have previously been okay although they've been having a bit of a rocky patch recently. But by and large, it's a complicated thing. There's a whole number of factors that go into it.
Widened search for sports talent in the regions
ED: For a country of 1.5 billion people, if we were to go to certain pockets of the country, do you think there is undiscovered talent there?
I was reading somewhere. I'm not sure if it was the New York Times talking about cricket players, in parts of the West, it could have been Xinjiang or Yunnan or, that there's a community that actually likes cricket very much. So are there pockets that you think are still undiscovered? And because it's a state run system, that these pockets don't get the opportunity to scale?
MD: It was a great question. You're not the first person to ask that, because that's exactly what China has been looking at the last few years.
You mentioned Yunnan, there was cross-country skier by the name of Chen Degen, who comes from Yunnan province in the southwest of the country, basically tropical. It's very hot there in the summer. He hadn't seen snow, until 2019, for the first time. He was a high school track runner, he used to run 5,000 10,000 metres. And so, he was specifically recruited as someone who had good endurance, which is one of the characteristics you need to excel in cross country skiing. They taught him how to ski. And he's taken to it pretty well. Now, he's not going to win a medal. But he's young and he's shown tremendous growth over the past three years that he's been involved in it. It’s incredible to think he's even lining up at the Olympics after just learning how to ski literally less than three years ago.
Again, this has been a deliberate strategy from China, not just to widen the base away from the northeastern hub— which is where all the winter athletes would grow up with snow and ice—but also to kind of include the rest of the country. For the first time, they can say we have athletes from Yunnan and we have these two Tibetan athletes for the first time ever at these games. There's plenty of athletes from Xinjiang and from not exactly every province, but many more provinces than they've had in the past.
How successful China’s sports programs have been
ED: In fact, this is something that many countries that want to up their own game in sports and in the Olympics, look to China to see what can we learn from it.
There's this, you know, dichotomy between a planned sports infrastructure and the grassroots sports infrastructure. Take soccer, for example, you were mentioning about team sports and the problems that they have. In 2015 in your book, you mentioned that there was a state council paper on how to manage the progress.
MD: Reportedly signed off by the big man himself, Xi Jinping.
ED: Who is a soccer fan. And how successful are these? Obviously, for individual sports, they have been very successful. You push a thousand young people into the system and then you get one or two gold medals at the end. But in the way they're constructing their state run process, what you see in that?
MD: I think you can't underestimate the power of government support here. One of the sports I look at is baseball. When baseball is in the Olympics, there is support and funding. Baseball leagues are going to be thriving here if it's in the Olympics because it's one of the sports that has been in and out of Olympic cycles. When it's in, we see a huge difference from when it suddenly drops from the programme. The problem is, when you have that state involvement, it doesn't always work.
And when we talk about soccer it’s the classic example. It has to come from grassroots. But here's the problem: China, at its core, is a top-down society, everything comes from the very top and is mandated from above, and then the lower levels are forced to implement it. That just simply doesn't work. In soccer, you got these two different approaches diametrically opposed. And I could talk for literally hours about the problems with soccer. But if I have to sum it up, it's that this grassroots coming up against this top down approach and they just don't work.
ED: Where are the points that they're not meeting? Actually, I even think this whole thing of top down approach for soccer comes from the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University. Because just about every government trade person who's been there is thought to recognise that soccer is something that you need to have control over. It’s something in the back of my mind because I see several governments doing this. At the same time, governments, and not just China, right across Asia and a lot of developing countries fail. And they fail sometimes because it's too structured a process, and therefore, it opens itself up to corruption. And it's also not sensitive enough to identify talent and pick them up and nurture them over a period of time. It’s something that you covered a lot in your book and I'm really curious if you think China will eventually crack the code in soccer, in a way that Japan has, to some extent.
MD: I was on a panel; it was a radio panel for China Radio International, around 2015, when the big 50- point plan (for soccer) was announced. And there's one crucial thing in there that said: we are going to separate the Chinese Football Association from the state. This, basically, is mandated by FIFA that you can't have government interference in soccer, in the Football Association. But of course, it's China so everything ultimately reports to the government. There was a professor who was saying ‘this is a great day for football’, this is going to be fantastic. And I politely made the point that, in practice, it’s going to be tricky in China. It’s just not how the country works.
If you start separating things, being free from government control, that's a road down which China can't travel very easily because it starts to open some doors it doesn't want to open, it starts to ask some questions it doesn't want to answer.
And so, ultimately, we haven't really ever seen that freedom from government control. What that means is we don't have football people making football decisions. And if you're not a football person, then how are you supposed to know about the best things for football development? It's not rocket science to do this. Other countries have done it. They've put in place a 20- year plan and they followed it through. But there's a number of problems that China has struggled with. One is government rotation. You have government ministers looking for quick wins because they want to get promotions and celebrate something three, four years down the line. But if you take the five- year -olds, and then you're trying to celebrate how well they're developed at the age of eight or nine, that's not going to really get you promotion. You got to do something more splashy, more short- term. Again, that's not going to lead you to long-term success. There's just so many different things.
One example that just popped into my mind: there was an official from the Chinese sports ministry and a comment came out from this guy. He said the reason that the national soccer team is not playing well is because these players line up against each other for their club team week in, week out in Chinese Super League. So how can they possibly learn to play with each other on the same side? From his point of view, somehow this made sense. But to anyone who's ever watched football anywhere in the world, it’s like: what is he talking about? In every country, you’re teammates, it's just you're playing for the national team, or playing for your club, not a big difference in terms of the fundamentals. And then I looked up this guy, his background was online somewhere. He came from water works. He studied wastewater treatment. Of course, he doesn't really know about football. But how on earth is he in a position that he's making these fundamental decisions about how football should be run? It’s madness.
ED: Just listening to you describe that, I see China's struggling with exactly the same issues in other aspects of society. To what extent do you give personal freedom to communities and individuals? And to what extent is someone from the state able to test the pet theory and say if they were more coherent as a group, they probably play better. Which leads me to my next question because we really have a lot of ground to cover and I just want to tick off the boxes as we go along.
Acceptance of foreign talent in Chinese sports
ED: To what extent is China used to bringing in foreigners? Talk to me about where you see foreigners, both in the coaches as well as the players. How they incorporated, why, and how they do.
MD: China sees the long game. It knows where it is even though sometimes the messaging is different. But I think deep down, they know kind of the level they are at different sports. But you know, if we look at winter sports with the Olympics around the corner, and they're here, and they're trying to get to here, ultimately in the long- term, they want homegrown athletes with Chinese coaches doing that.
In some sports that's possible. But even in short track speedskating, which is one of the areas where China has excelled in the past, there will still be a number of foreign coaches. We have 176 athletes in the Chinese delegation, we have 51 foreign coaches. That's a lot of foreigners brought in.
You mentioned players as well in the hockey team for both men's and women's. About 60% of those squads are North Americans, mostly Canadians, most of whom have some sort of Chinese heritage. They've been recruited over a number of years to sort of say: ‘Do you want to represent your other country? Obviously, you have some Chinese roots there’.
A lot of people have signed up. The reason they've brought them in is because in the here and now, those players are better than what they already have to choose from. So, we had a game earlier today, it was one of the games that started actually ahead of the opening ceremony. There were some Chinese homegrown players but they're seeing very little lifetime. They're good for Chinese players and they've made tremendous progress, but they’re still a significant level below what these Chinese Canadians are at the level today. But long-term, the plan is very much to combine the things together, use the foreign expertise, learn from the foreign coaches. But ideally, long-term, be able to do it themselves.
Role of stars in Chinese sports system
ED: Now that we are 20 years into China's rise as a sporting nation, you have personalities. You have government, the state process and so on. And then you have stars. And I think we've seen how the government has treated stars in the technology area. It was not very encouraging. But then there are (sports) stars like Li Na, Peng Shuai and there’s Yao Ming. What is the role of these stars? How do they conduct themselves? And what is their relationship to the associations to promoting the sports? What is the nature of their status? In the sports community? And how's that different from stars in the UK and in other countries?
MD: It’s a difficult question to answer because I think there's some discrepancies between the sports. I'll pick a couple of them. Yao Ming will always be sporting royalty in China but he's very much a state person. He went overseas, was an all-star for many years when basketball was at its absolute peak here in China. He was globally respected as a player but fans are particularly very proud of him here. He's now got a leading role in the Chinese Basketball Association. He's been part of political gatherings as well. He studied academically, so he's just respected across every level. He's a fairly understated character. He's not outspoken.
For example, when the big soccer plan came out, he was probably feeling a bit miffed that basketball wasn't getting too much love. He gently suggested that it would be nice to get some of that support, too. But he's not putting any angry comments.
For sure, Li Na is another one, who I think is a great example, because she realised that the Chinese state system had given her huge amounts of support to get to the level where she was. But she felt that to get to the very top, she needed to change things. And she scrapped and scrapped and scrapped with a number of other players. And they fought with the Chinese Tennis Association. And it was a two- way dialogue. The narrative is very much that they broke free but they were also let go to a certain extent. It was Madam Sun (Sun Jinfang) who was in charge of the Chinese Tennis Association at the time and she basically gave her blessing to do this. So four players were allowed to go out and hire their own coaching setups or decide their own schedule instead of everything being very tightly controlled. They didn't have to ship their winnings back to the state. They still had to give some but they were able to retain a higher percentage of their prize money. A lot of risk on both sides. But, ultimately, with two grand slam wins for Li Na winning the French Open in 2011 and the Australian Open in 2014, you have to say it was a success. It was combining the best of both worlds: it was that Chinese support from the ground up and building on that with some more foreign expertise. And what we kind of got into is this sort of back and forth with different parties trying to claim credit. The Chinese media was saying she wouldn't be where she was today if she hadn't been developed by the Chinese system. And you had the foreign media saying she was only good because she escaped from the clutches of the Chinese system. And it was a bit of both right.
And I kind of hate this phrase, ‘with Chinese characteristics,’ but it really was tennis with Chinese characteristics. It was the perfect meeting of the foreign world and the Chinese side. It was something that worked for China. I think the biggest shame that I've seen is that China hasn't really been able to recreate that in too many other sports. I think it was perfect. She got right to the very top. She was ranked number two in the world, two grand slam wins. It's very, very hard to do in tennis.
We haven't seen anyone quite emulate her in tennis. But in other sports, I think that model is something that could have been applied. And in terms of character, she was a dream personality. Global fans loved her. When she was giving her victory speech in 2014 at the Australian Open, the whole stadium was collapsing in laughter. She was so funny. She wasn't completely fluent, but good enough to communicate. She could have been a global star. She could have been China's best soft power ambassador. Wouldn't it be nice?
ED: Now that you mentioned it, if you have English-speaking Chinese stars who speak for themselves, interact with the global community.
MD: At some level, China doesn’t want them to speak for themselves, they want them to speak for the state.
ED: And all the time, they are second guessing themselves: at which point am I my own person and in which point am I a representative of the state.
MD: And then without getting too political, it only got worse over the last few years with the tightening of the censorship and what's acceptable. Sports used to be in this free space where no one really cared. You could do or say what you wanted. And now, even sports can be seen as sensitive these days.
ED: To be really honest, the way in which China tackles these personality issues, I see that coming back into society, where in order for society to have breakthroughs in science and business, you do need these personalities with huge egos representing themselves, and then moderate that with the relationship with the system that is created.
MD: Let me just jump in for one second because you're talking about these other sectors. For people who are watching who don't know much about sports, this is one slice of Chinese society. It’s the lens through which I've looked at China over the last 15 years. But I do think there are lessons to be learned it's applicable to many other sectors as well, whether it's Jack Ma and technology and a big personality and what happens to him and Li Na in sports, there's some definite parallels there. And I think it's really interesting. You can learn a lot from just looking at the sports industry and applying it to many other facets of Chinese life.
How China’s first Formula One driver will likely play out in the system
ED: In fact in your book, towards the end, you're talking about F1. And there is a personality coming on stream, Zhou Guanyu. How do you think he's going to play out? How was he even identified? Because, China participates in the F1 circuit as a state run enterprise. And yet the F1 universe is really a free for all. Well, it's not really free for all. It's highly regulated. How did he come up to the system? And how do you think he's gonna play out?
MD: Well, not just sports, the domestic series. I've actually done quite a lot of commentating and reporting on motorsport. I hadn't done much before I came to China, but I'm quite involved with that sport over here. It's still in the earliest stages, it's not that developed. To reach the top levels, the best Chinese drivers have gone over to Europe and raced in some of those series from maybe their mid-teenage years. And so that's what Zhou Guanyu does. He's based in London right now. He's posted photos where he fell in love with the sport going to the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. That was his first connection to motorsport. That's when he fell in love with it.
ED: But you need money for it. Right?
MD: Yeah, motorsport’s incredibly expensive. And the higher level you go, the more you need.
ED: Personal money, not state money. That's a new dimension.
MD: You can bring in sponsors of course and a lot of people all around the world. Some of the seats in F1 are given because they're bringing in huge sponsorship money. Sometimes state money as well whether it's from Russia or Central and South America. So there is a bit of a narrative that Zhou Guanyu is there just because he's going to attract a lot of Chinese sponsors. I think he's a great commercial opportunity. I think he's also very talented. And he's just a good character. He's very comfortable in English, very presentable, a likeable guy that I think fans in China and the world will warm to. It's his first season. He hasn't even started his first season in F1. Unfortunately, he can't even race in his home Grand Prix here in China because it's been scrapped for COVID reasons. It's too early to say. But he's on the radar of someone who could potentially be a little bit further down the line. If he's able to hold his own on the track, he could become a bit of a global name because F1 stars are sort of revered around the world, not just in their home countries.
What stars think about China’s sports system
ED: Keeping to the theme of personalities, in your book, you draw out what personalities are saying about sports. You said something about Xu Lijia, the sailing medalist and what she was reminiscing about what it took to become a sports person and whether it's worth it. Do you find that there's a kind of a self- reflection going on? That it might be harder to get sports people in the future? Or that the whole cauldron is becoming a mixed bag of different personalities? And what is the thing that is most important about the Chinese state sports machine?
(MD) I think there's a lot. One thing I'd say is that the country will find it harder to recruit young athletes because it used to be seen as: oh, wow, selected for sport school at junior levels. This is providing winning glory for China, this is part of this big national effort, and it's going to end up in gold medals. And even if it's not our personal success, we're part of the system.
As the general well- being of people has improved, and the level of their livelihood has raised over the years, I think the expectations that people have for their children are also raised. The thought of sending away little Johnny or that one child, that's significant. Because they only have, for many families, just the one child here. Sending them away to a sport school from a very early age, and the chance of that person then turning into Olympic champion being so remote. You've got this huge pyramid of people who haven't made it. And what are you getting at? Are you really bringing honor? Is that person, just by being part of that system, bringing much honor to the family? They are not really getting credit for it. The families are missing their child. And I think there are higher expectations. There's more people who don't want to send them away. This is not worth it. The risk-reward equation there is dramatically changed.
And you mentioned Xu Lijia, she was so interesting to hear and she was very open talking to me. She’s deeply patriotic. She loves her country. And she's so thankful for the opportunities that she had. She said, “There's no way my parents could have afforded to put me into the sailing system and to pay for that. Without the system, without China’s support, I wouldn't have become an Olympic champion.” But at the same time, she realised how much she'd given up and the phrase she used, I think it was like, “You kind of give up your freedom and you have to obey what the state tells you to do”. She was just conflicted. It was like, ‘Well, I'm so grateful but at the same time I also gave up a lot.’ She went away from the age of nine or 10 and cried and cried and cried, night after night after night. And then you basically numb to the pain. And you think about that. That's tough. That's hard to hear.
The kind of system that will bring out the most gold medalists
ED: Just for context the question I would like to ask you is: every major country that rose to prominence has gone through this kind of a phase. Germany has gone through this phase, the US has, the UK maybe perhaps a longer time before. When I look at synchronised swimming, for example, it's not the libertarian countries that are, excelling in them anymore. It's the countries where discipline is still very revered. Just give me a sense of what is the kind of system that throws up Olympic champions in the US today? How's that different from China? You think Phelps or one of the major stars. That's personal discipline and it's a personal sacrifice. Is the US also capable of continuing to throw out, you know, superstars in sports?
MD: A big difference is, you have a natural organic base of people to choose from who've selected that sport. And what that means is, the people who rise to the top in those sports have specifically chosen it, and they love it. That's why they stick at it. And so, the chances of them developing and progressing are much, much greater. Xu Lijia, the sailor, said she happens to really like sailing. But she was recruited from a swim team. She was a bit sick and her parents were like, oh, well, let's throw you into the swim team, maybe that will help you. And then the sailing coach who came around was like, hey, do you want to do this? And she said, I don't know what that is, I don't know what sailing is. Her parents were the same way. And she was like, I happen to love it. But a lot of her teammates were like, that's just a job, they didn't really like sailing at all, they just happened to be quite good. And it's unsurprising that, you know, she was the one that excelled and became Olympic champion, because she loved that she had a passion for sailing. And, you know, her teammates didn't. And I think, in the West, and again, this is the exception, of course, but generally, the people who rise to the top, they love it. The soccer players, they've started with a ball of the feet from the age of three, and they love the game.
At its root, sports should be about fun, it should be about that passion. I think we lose that too much in China. Having said that, I am seeing a shifting in attitudes towards sports. The middle-class society is accepting and embracing sports in a way that they wouldn't have done in the past and are getting their kids involved. Hopefully, over time, it will produce more organic athletes who have chosen their sport. But here, Olympic champions are recruited whether from school based on the size of their feet, or how tall their parents are. All these different aesthetics and data points. It's a little bit too much regimented here, that old school sort of military training.
ED: I'm sure that every country goes through this difficulty of how much control and how much process. One country that comes to mind is Jamaica, which throws up so many sprinters. And from what I read, the Jamaican heritage does not have people who are naturally strong runners. And yet, just by over a 30-year period of putting tracks in every school, you actually get that baseline of young people who are interested in up and running, and then you throw up Usain Bolt and others. So there is that critical mass that needs to be built.
MD: And you have Usain Bolt and it’s not going to end with him. He's going to inspire the next generation of Jamaican kids that all want to be like him.
But you need those personalities to inspire. And too many of Chinese athletes, don't have that. They don't resonate at an emotional level with the Chinese population. People celebrate their success because they're proud of the Chinese people in sports. Fans are very patriotic, they embrace Chinese success, but they don't connect on an individual basis with the athletes as much as they do in the West.
How Chinese sports, politics and business are intertwined
ED: You know, Mark, the authenticity of your book comes from the fact that you feel the ground. You go out to the games, you know the people that you speak to. And you've seen your story over a period of time. And it comes out very well, in this book. Let me ask you this: what is the one thing that you wish that readers take away from this book?
MD: I think the one point I tried to make throughout the book is the fact that in China, more than any other country, you can’t separate sports from politics, from business. Those three strands are inextricably linked, just woven together and you try and unpick them but you really can’t. And I find that fascinating, absolutely fascinating from someone who comes from more of a pure sports background. You realise this is great to the Olympics. It's one of the biggest sporting events in the world, along with the World Cup.
But for China, it's more of a political event than it is a sporting event. It's great for sports that is happening, and it generates a huge amount of push for sports. But deep down, it's because it achieves a certain political goal. That's also fantastic for the economy, because the sports industry is absolutely booming. The winter sports industry has seen incredible growth over the last seven years since China was awarded these games in 2015. But again, it comes from the top. China is a political economy. And when push comes to shove of those three things, sports is a distant third, it really is. But that's just the way it is. Now, a lot of the way, a lot of the times, they can ride on the coattails of politics and business and see some great growth.
ED: At the same time, there's this Maslow's hierarchy of needs. When they have already fulfilled a lot of the baseline needs, that's when the aspirational leads come into play. And towards the second half of our conversation, we were talking about personalities, and how personalities correlate with the state and that's to be seen well into the future. And I hope to be able to stay in touch with you and continue our conversation on this. Great, good day.
ED: At the 2022 Winter Olympics held right after this conversation, China ranked third, not tenth, as Mark had estimated. But almost all of the new medals came from ethnic Chinese who are from other countries – Canada, the United States and other winter sport nations. Clearly, China had done a lot of work to jump-start their Winter Olympic ambitions, and at a huge cost.
But all of the factors that Mark suggested in our conversation were clearly present and at play. The massive number of foreign players and coaches and the investment in technology. All these introduce new issues into China’s sports industrial complex never seen before.
The rise of individual players who grew up in other countries, not supported by the state, could put a strain on relationships with native sport talent grown from within the system. And the ability of sports to make millionaire superstars out of young personalities adds a new lure to sports as a career.
The stakes are high, and those who fail, risk paying a huge social and personal price in front of a demanding audience. All these raises new issues in the relationship between the state and its people. The conversation with Mark and his book, gives some perspective on how these will be played out well into the future.
Keywords: Book, Journalist, Sporting Superpower, Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, Gold Medals, Eileen Gu, Sports Culture, Gymnastics, Soccer, Diving, Sliding Sports, Sports Stars, Sports, Beijing, Tokyo
People: Emmanuel Daniel, Mark Dreyer