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The "Nationwide Sport System" Needs Urgent Reform


INCREASINGLY, Chinese athletes are making outstanding performances in international sports competitions, attracting much attention to China’s “nationwide sports training system.” Media put much of China’s success at the Beijing Olympics down to this “nationwide sport system,” while an article by Reuters went so far as to declare that “each of China’s gold medals at the Beijing Olympics is the result of this system.”

In China opinions on this system are divided into two opposing camps. Some claim that it is perfect and should remain untouched, but many scholars of sports and social sciences insist that the system must be reformed, or even abolished.


The Chinese Sports Delegation to the 2012 London Olympics was finalized in Beijing on July 10.  

Olympics Obsessed

China’s “nationwide sport system” refers to a centrally managed program that strives for excellence in competitive sports, with Olympic medals seen as the most important awards and a measure of success. The system works on four levels – county amateur teams, prefectural teams, provincial teams and national teams – to ensure the training of top quality athletes. Huge financial outlays are needed to keep this closed training system, with its centralized residences, integrated regional games, and national games, running smoothly.

Over the years this system has provided China with excellent results. Since the ninth Asian Games in 1982, when China won more gold medals than any other participating country, the country has outperformed its neighbors by increasing distances. One only has to look at China’s performances at the past five Olympic Games to see the steady rise of the nation’s sporting prowess, where the country won successively 16, 16, 28, 32 and 51 gold medals, bringing its world ranking from fourth in 1992 to first at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At London 2012, China finished second, with 38 gold medals and 87 medals in total.

The effectiveness of the “nationwide sport system” is obvious if looked at from this perspective, but the Olympics are only one event among many, and these achievements do not imply that China actually dominates international competitive sports.

At present, there are only 28 Olympic sports, 26 of which featured at the London Olympics, which represent only a tiny fraction of all sports. Achievements at the Olympics do not reflect an advance in other events, and do not reflect the general level of sports in China. Many countries do not regard Olympic gold as the ultimate goal of their sports strategies. For example, India, whose economy is growing fast and whose population is second only to China’s, pays little attention to its performance at the Summer or Winter Games. By Olympic standards, India’s athletic prowess is weak, but in reality the nation has produced world class teams and players in sports that China is relatively poor at, such as cricket and golf.

Even within the world of the Olympic games, judging China’s sporting prowess simply by its aggregated number of gold medals is misleading, masking the nation’s weaknesses in several major events. Though it might have the overall lead, China does not perform well in every single discipline against the United States or Russia, or even against Britain, Australia or Italy. China can count itself only as average in basic Olympic events such as ball games, the athletics or swimming. In sum, the Olympic Games cannot be used as the only yardstick to measure success in competitive sports, and its importance should not be overstated.

Breaking the Closed System

In reality, China’s sport system has many drawbacks. It attracts massive funds to support competitive sports, meaning reduced funding to sports for the general public. The intensive and closed training athletes go through means that they have few chances to learn other things, and once their athletic careers are over they have little of the experience needed to enter new professions. Such problems draw criticism from not just sports specialists who are calling for the abolition of the “nationwide sport system,” but also from the public.

Other institutions have attempted to provide environments for producing top athletes. Tsinghua University set up a system for training athletes from a young age until candidacy for the Olympics, but it has been strangled by the so-called “nationwide sport system.” Under the justification that they are making contribution to “honoring the motherland,” the sport departments hoard sporting resources and operate in a closed manner that excludes the outside world. A result of this is that, though the Ministry of Education has made efforts to organize school sports teams since 1986, no Olympic champion has come from China’s non-sport specialized colleges. The situation is very different in the U.S., where over 60 percent of Olympic champions are recipients of sports scholarships in regular universities.

Since the Beijing Olympics, certain developed countries have reviewed their sports management systems and strengthened competitive sports, but this has not meant they have chosen China’s “nationwide sport system” as a model. For example, although they propose to increase the time dedicated to training, the basic system for U.S. college athletics has not been changed and athletes who do not meet the academic demands are not allowed to participate in sports training. As for Japan, it was determined to become one of the top five gold medal winning nations at the London Olympic Games and increased funding for sports, albeit to a limited extent. The country ended up 11th, with seven gold medals. It did not change its traditional system, which aims primarily to improve public health.

I have visited six European countries over the past two years. What impressed me most were their community based sports activities, which they often use as a means to achieve almost every social objective. In Germany, sports clubs can be found everywhere, and they are constantly refined to improve the lives of the disabled, the elderly, youth and immigrants; to prevent crimes, increase labor productivity, enhance community solidarity and help the fight against drugs, all undeniably worthwhile reasons to develop sports clubs. The result is that the link between sports and society can be felt everywhere. And isn’t this the real motive for encouraging sports?

Currently, about two thirds of countries around the world have no specialist sports ministries in their cabinets, but integrate sports management with culture, education, tourism, art, youth, and even religion. After China’s government restructuring in 1998, many county-level governments have established institutions whose responsibilities combine culture, radio, television, film and sports with the idea of integrating sports with other areas. However, this objective has not been fully realized due to operational deviations. In my opinion, reforming the “nationwide sport system” should be made part of the restructuring of government. With changes like this, our national system for sports, whether competitive or social, will be able to rally the strength of the whole nation.

VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us