Something to Prove

Taiwanese athletes march into the 1960 Games in Rome. They objected to competing under the banner of "Formosa" instead of the "Republic of China."
Taiwanese athletes march into the 1960 Games in Rome. They objected to competing under the banner of "Formosa" instead of the "Republic of China." (Associated Press)
Reviewed by Edward Cody
Sunday, May 25, 2008


China and Sports, 1895-2008

By Xu Guoqi

Harvard Univ. 377 pp. $29.95

The Chinese government has said over and over in the last few months that the Beijing Olympics should not be politicized. The uproar over Tibet has no place in the Games, officials insist. Nor do humanitarian concerns over Sudan's Darfur region belong in the Olympic spotlight. As for human rights in China itself, well, that's an internal matter.

Yet, politics have long been at the heart of China's relations with the modern Olympic movement, as Xu Guoqi, an associate professor at Kalamazoo College, shows in his illuminating history, Olympic Dreams. The first time China participated in the Games, in 1932 at Los Angeles, the goal was to prevent Japan from scoring a propaganda coup. Japanese occupation authorities had planned to dispatch a stocky Chinese sprinter named Liu Changchun to represent the Manchukuo republic, the puppet state Japan had set up in Manchuria and Mongolia. To foil that plan, China's Nationalist government hurriedly scraped together some money and sent Liu as a one-man Chinese delegation. He fared poorly as a sprinter but held high the Chinese flag.

Later on, Mao Zedong saw sports victories as a way to prove the superiority of the socialist way. On advice from the U.S.S.R., China cultivated national teams. But during the first two decades of Communist rule, China kept its athletes out of the Olympics to protest Taiwan's participation. (More recently, both China and Taiwan have sent teams under artful compromises over the island's name.)

When Mao decided the time had come to make friends in the West, he also found sports a handy tool for that purpose. Mao and President Nixon had been exchanging secret messages through intermediaries for months before the Chinese sent a team to the World Table Tennis Championship in Japan in April 1971. As Xu relates, Zhou En-lai, who was in charge of foreign relations, issued detailed instructions to the Chinese players on what to do if they met Americans. "The Chinese were not permitted to exchange team flags," for example, but they "could shake hands," Xu notes. When American player Glenn Cowan jumped on a Chinese bus to greet Chinese star Zhuang Zedong, Zhuang was ready with a silk painting to present as a gift. Mao then gave the order for the Chinese players to invite the U.S. team to China; by the end of the month, the Americans had alighted in Beijing. "The small ping-pong ball, worth only about 25 cents, played a unique and significant role . . . in transforming Sino-U.S. relations," Xu concludes.

Even before Mao, sports had played an eminently political role in China. Chinese nationalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw athletics as a way to create vigorous men who could wage war and change the country's reputation as the "sick man of east Asia." As part of the national revival they hoped to foster, they embraced Western sports to counter the Mandarin paradigm of Chinese men as spindly, sedentary and effete.

Despite the reformers' efforts, to some degree the old paradigm has remained alive. Traditionally, most Chinese have been brought up to think they should be clever, disciplined and able to bear hardship, but not powerful or swift. Because Yao Ming's jousts with fellow NBA giants and Liu Xiang's triumph in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Athens Olympics shattered racial stereotypes, they were hailed as breakthroughs by a new generation of Chinese. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, where China hopes to win more medals than any other nation, also was intended to have a political message.

Since abandoning doctrinaire socialism three decades ago, China has enjoyed an economic explosion that has given its 1.3 billion people a standard of living their parents could hardly imagine, and the government has entered into normal relations with most countries, becoming a diplomatic as well as an economic player in Asia and beyond. By hosting the Games, China was going to celebrate this status. Perhaps more important, it was going to receive international recognition of its achievements and, in some measure, acceptance of the Communist Party's glacial pace toward political change.

Xu's misfortune, and China's, is that this landscape, which he ably paints in his final chapter, shifted not long after the manuscript was sent to the printer. Riots in Tibet and protests along the Olympic Torch relay route created a global audience for questions about China's worthiness to host the Olympics. The atmosphere has soured badly, and no one knows whether it can be repaired before the Games begin in August.

The May 12 earthquake in Sichuan also will affect the Olympics. A country in mourning, China is likely to attract sympathy. But sorrow may change the tone of the event. Xu's history of China's participation in the Olympics remains enlightening, but the unsettled 2008 Games have become the stuff of journalism, changing every day. ยท

Edward Cody is The Post's Beijing bureau chief.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company