Meteoric Rise of China in Olympics

Story of China in Olympics

China is one country that has surprised the world with the abundance of talent in the area of sports one which cannot be boasted by any other country near to China in terms of population or economic conditions. For a country that was invited at the eleventh hour and just about made its Olympic debut in 1952 in Helsinki (participating in just one event, swimming), China’s has been a fascinating journey in the quadrennial Games.

It is a different matter that after 1952 Helsinki Games, China remained out of the Olympic gamut for four decades for various political reasons.

A country which had not participated in Olympics for 32 years came back in 1984 and bagged 32 medals including 15 gold astonishing the world. Medal tally of many countries over a century is less than what China bagged in a single Olympic Games held at Los Angeles. If China took the sports world by storm, so to say, in Los Angeles, finishing fifth overall but fourth in terms of gold medals won (15), then in Beijing (2008) it touched the pinnacle.

Medal tally for China over the Olympics

What factors caused this meteoric rise of China in Olympics rivalling all other countries including power houses like USA, UK and France. Let us see what changed the scenario in favor of China over these years.

Introduction of Asian Sports like Badminton, Table Tennis, Judo, Taekwondo

Judo introduced in 1964 and re-introduced in 1972 has given China a total of 20 medals including 8 Gold.

In 1988 Seoul Olympics, the Asian sports of table-tennis and taekwondo were introduced. Ever since it was China who evolved quickly and brought back home a majority of the medals in these sports. Badminton was soon introduced in Barcelona 1992,  and China soon owned the sport leading the medal tally for Badminton with 16 Gold and 38 medals in total.

The introduction of all these sports and China dominating in all of these proves that they have successfully made the most out of the advantage of cultural heritage in those sports.

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Year when the sport was introduced and China’s medal tally

China is specifically focused on increasing its medal hauls and looks to exploit opportunities where they could quickly surpass the rest of the world. When trampoline was added as an Olympic sport in 2000 the Chinese immediately made sure to put funding and resources towards training because the level of competition was low. They won both gold medals and a bronze in men’s and women’s trampoline in 2008.

Also, if you look at the 2008 medal winners you will see that 29 golds were in women’s events compared to only 22 in men’s events.

Increased training and awareness among citizens about sports along with support from the Government

 The Chinese government have a heavily funded and centralized top-down training model; with the one goal to achieve Olympic Gold. The exact figures of the funding are unknown, and not as transparent as other nations, but still estimated to be the highest funded high performance program in the world. These funds help to pay athletes salaries, have full-time staff supporting those athletes, get the best coaches & foreign expertise to improve it further, build big training facilities, and really do anything they want. With a structured pyramid program, with around 5000 sports schools, filtering into province training centers, and then the best up into the Olympic center. Ensuring that the Chinese Olympic program can run smoothly and succeed at it’s goal.

Year round structured training (More prepared)

China being traditionally strong in sports that can be trained for with repetition. I would add also that it’s very strict and disciplined. Coaches put their athletes through the ringer.

Not to say not all athletes  train year round, but the Chinese have a 365 days/year training together as a team generally in most sports. Although  some sports like Basketball they have around 6 months (as they spend the other 6 months in their professional teams), but that’s still lot more time together in national team then other nations. What does this mean? Well it means they are going to function better as a team, be more prepared to work with the national coach, better skilled, and better in team environment & teams culture, and with the physical resilience and technical skills to succeed. A lot of other programs in Olympic sports around the world do not follow such a professional program, for example some Olympic teams athletes train independently and then only come together to join the national team in the months or even just weeks before the games.


Sending more women to the Olympics

China has never been miserly in allowing participation of Women in sports. Since 1984 China have ensured that they have enough number of women participating in each one of the Olympic games. This has been a crucial factor in improving the overall medal tally for China.

Number of Men and Women athletes sent by China to the Olympics

The Chinese have traditionally been stronger in women’s events than they are in men’s events, especially in team sports. This is because, in most countries, men’s sports generally receives more attention and funding than women’s. China would therefore be more easily capable of catching up and surpassing other countries through putting greater amounts of funding and resources towards women’s sports and the government knows this. In addition, in the 80s several sports like weightlifting, wrestling, cycling were introduced for women.


Increased participation in high medal count sports – Gymnastics, Weightlifting, Diving

China has always ensured that there is enough participation for the events like Gymnastics, Diving and Weightlifting. They have sent maximum number of athletes to those sports which are inherently European or in which there are chances of getting multiple medals. They have not only ensured participation but have made sure that they dominate those events by upsetting some of the first world countries.

Athletes sent by China for these events

China is good at a couple of sports for which a lot of medals can be won: gymnastics (18 golds). Besides the team and individual all-around events every apparatus has an individual event so the same athletes can double, or even treble, up. A single talented gymnast can win more than a group of handball, football or basketball players put together. That same person can compete in half a dozen medal events, whereas a track runner has to specialize. Thus to win lots of track medals you need lots of talented athletes. Badminton, Diving and Weightlifting – other Chinese strengths – also offer multiple medals.

Hosting Olympics ensured more participation and exposure to more events. Preparing for that event also triggered athlete development.

2008 Beijing Olympics was a matter of Pride for China. They not only wanted to showcase the development of the country but also wanted to showcase their athletic ability to the world.

After they got the permission to host the event, the Chinese government put in a long term plan involving Infrastructure development, Training of Athletes and Showcasing the Cultural Inheritance.

The results were amazing, most of the countries were astonished at the elaborate planning and facilities set up by China.

Chinese Athletes also came prepared and made the host nation proud by winning 51 Gold medals in a tally of 100 medals and coming first in front of their home crowd.


Use of Foreign Expertise

The big jump made at Beijing 2008 and beyond, had a lot to do with foreign expertise. The sourced the world for the best coaches, the best staff. Head coaches alone, there were 28 foreign coaches for the last Olympics. Some examples where athletes get injured and they fly in expertise from around the world for their opinions. This spending of money for an athlete is rarely done elsewhere.


Top-down sports system vs. bottom-up

China is a top-down sports system, a system where the top level controls and manages everything with the goal to achieve Olympic success. Meaning the entire reason athletes enter the system at the bottom (the sports schools), is with the aim to achieve to achieve the government’s goal of Olympic success. Some other Asian nations however have similar systems. This contrasts however to Western nations, where-as it’s a bottom-up system, where-as the community and club levels develop athletes, and athletes enter sport for their own goals. One where they just naturally develop going through lower levels, until they have a talent, and then get recognised and selected for national program (and not until then does the government or national sports governing body have much influence on that athletes life). Of course arguments and debate on which is optimal. However it’s not hard to see that if you have a control of athletes life and sports development from the day they enter sport, and plan & goal for those athlete to succeed at Olympics,  then it is much easier to plan for accomplishing that goal, Eg. What kind of education do they need, what skills do they need, what physical requirements do they need, how much sleep do they need, what medical support do they need etc.

Yes China does have one of the largest talent pool in the world to pick from. China has around 200,000 full-time athletes within their Olympic or Institute of Sports programs. Probabilities of “1” champion being produced out of that talent pool is thus much more likely, in comparison to the 1000 or few 1000 in other Olympic programs. Also the width and differences of the ‘ethnicities’ across China means they get various people of different physical capabilities.

Kids with little academic aptitude and/or strong athletic potential attend dedicated sports schools, where they train in their chosen field almost every day. They are basically full-time athletes from childhood. Not many western athletes have the luxury of skipping out on their maths homework to practice sports. Chinese kids hit their 10,000 hours pretty early.

Smart Allocation of Funding

 They concentrate on sports that they can win, or succeed at, be it sports that they see an opportunity (less competitive) or sports that they know they win (eg. table tennis). For example many gymnasts are changed into snow boarding, aerial skiing, and diving. Because  the Chinese athletes have great gymnastic abilities, they thus would make a good for a similar sports that requires these skills to help and thus can become more competitive then people without those same gymnastic abilities. They also focus on sheer medal numbers; they concentrate on sports with different weight classes (eg. weight lifting or wrestling) or sports with more medals (eg. swimming). But then this same approach is done by most centralized sports systems, including Australia.

China has long had a strategy of recruiting athletes to sports it believes it has a realistic chance of winning. In terms of resource allocation they partly ignore the glamour events (e.g. athletics) in favor of less-popular ones (e.g. shooting).

Rewards for Athletes & Better Life

The rewards for those who make it are great. Some Olympic athletes earn more in a week then their poor family can in a year. That way it is a great way forward for poor families to jump to a better social class. This provides excellent motivation for them to train hard. China Olympic champions get $200,000 USD for an Olympic Gold (figure appears to vary in different sources), and add in houses, a high level job within the government upon retirement; even winning the All-China Games grants athletes $100,000  USD (depending on the province). Most of these athletes come from families that work in factories, and/or farms, earning just enough to feed the family.

Short man syndrome

The Chinese government, and many of the people, really do believe the world is against them and that they have something to prove. This motivates them to show the rest of the world they are just as awesome as they are.

For a long time China was “bullied by the foreign powers” (so it believes, anyway), and “The Party” still gets a lot of criticism today. Sports are one field in which they can genuinely compete and show the world they are here and are no longer weak.

They take it really seriously


Winning at the Olympics is a big deal for Chinese people. While every country likes a little success at the Olympics, few value it as highly as the Chinese.

Finding: Long term planning and preparation is required to be an Olympic super power along with sending athletes to events with maximum medal prospects rather than last minute preparation