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The Spirit of the Olympic Games and the Rise of China

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Paul Wang

It is fair to say that no country like China has so seriously connected its national rejuvenation to the Olympic Games for one century. It is also rare that the top leader of a major power like Chinese President Xi Jinping has paid earnest attention to the preparations for the Olympics from the very beginning in 2017. It is reported that over the five years, Xi has made five inspection tours to the sports venues. During his latest tour to the sports villages on January 4, he led his entourage to the Winter Games facilities as the opening ceremony is in one month away. During this field trip, Xi called for efforts to ensure the success of the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in line with what China has promised for the world to host “a green, inclusive, open and corruption-free Winter Olympic Games.”

Historically speaking, China is home to a great and ancient civilization. But as a political entity in modern era, it is a newer player since it was forged after the demise of the Qing Empire in 1912. Since then, the great (and largely successful) quest of China during the following century has been committed to transforming the large country to one strong power and a respected nation-state in the world order. Coincidently, as historian William Kirby put it, the struggle for the rise of China was always linked with the rise of the modern Olympic movement and the growth of spectator sports as an international cultural scenario. To make this long history into a short story, this paper tries to explore the salient legacy of the International Olympic Games in China and its impact on the growth of Chinese nationalism during the 20th century until now.

In a review of the creation of modern China, sports have unusually played a role that has grown in dimensions. For instance, the Olympic Games have aspired the drowsy Chinese to rethink and reinforce new national identities. In 1927 when the Nationalist (KMT) elite took power in China, its early plans for the new capital city of Nanjing included an Olympic-scale stadium. Later, it sent China’s first athlete team to the Olympic Games in 1932 and 1936 for international legitimacy. But China’s inferior power and public poor health only drew international contempt and defeats. Echoing Chinese low-status of the day, Mao Zedong, who later became the leading founder of the People’s Republic of China, warned his contemporaries that “China is being drained of strength. Public interest in martial arts is flagging. The people’s health is declining with each passing day. One day our country will become even weaker if things are allowed to go unchanged for long.” Mao’s words serve us to understand that since the early 20th century, why Chinese political elite are convinced of the merits of the sports in general and the Olympic Games in particular because they would benefit public health domestically and enhance China’s image internationally.

However, it is since the foundation of the PRC that has fundamentally heralded an era of mass participation and public consumption in China as elsewhere of sporting competitions. Since the 1980s when China first participated in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles and then in Seoul, it has been involved in the IO games because sports, and the Olympics in particular, show well how nationalism and internationalism come together in China. It is self-evident that Chinese participation and interest in modern sports are largely driven by nationalism and, through taking part in world competitions, China has engaged the international community. Now Beijing is set to become the first city in the world to have hosted the summer in 2008 and soon to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022. It is proud to say that hosting a successful Winter Olympic Games is a solemn commitment China has made to the international society. As the Olympic Games are around the corner, China’s preparation for the Games has attracted the global attention.

Now the inquiries go to what are expected for China to attain during the 2022 Olympics given that it is not only the second largest economy in the world but also a rising military power? Looking into the legacy of the Olympic Games in China and Chinese aspiration for their historical mission since the early 20th century, we can possibly suppose three results expected.

First, China aims to rebuild an image of a responsible power in light of multilateralism. With the world still battling the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, compassion, solidarity, and friendship among nations have never been more critical. As UN head Antonio Guterres, who has accepted an invitation to attend the Beijing Winter Games, has said, “The Olympic spirit brings out humanity’s best: teamwork and solidarity plus talent and tolerance.” Echoing this call, the games organizing committee has vowed to use latest technology in Beijing’s Main Media Center which is the temporary home and office of some 3,000 journalists from more than 100 countries and regions and 12,000 broadcasters from over 200 networks. Moreover, armies of robots will help to provide a wide range of services, working as guides and doing things from those related to COVID-19 prevention and control, to food delivery and food preparation. Since the Olympic spirit of unity, friendship and peace is deeply rooted in China, sports are supposed to promote the mutual amity and respect among the athletes from diverse nations and cultures.

Second, the CPC elite aims to present a healthy and happy China to the world which has been sieged by the multiple complex challenges over the past decade. It is estimated that about 300 million Chinese will be inspired to participate in winter sports through hosting the Olympic Games. In addition, it will not only contribute substantially to the Olympic cause, but also foster domestic public engagement in sports. By hosting the summer and winter Olympic Games, Beijing and elsewhere in China will make full use of the sports venues for ordinary Chinese as they see the sports to promote the public health, to stimulate social-economic growth and to revitalize the cultural legacy of China since it has long regarded physical fitness as an essential national trait.

Third, China, both the leading elite and the led mass, has attest to the contribution of sport for sustainable economic and social development. The 2008 Olympic Games are a prime example of how the games can affect society, triggering action by the government to improve the lives of people with disabilities and protect their rights as equal members of society, along with nationwide investments in sustainable transport, public health, and renewable energy–all important legacies enjoyed by Chinese people today. Indeed, the UN Environment Program’s office in China has provided technical support and advice on the development of national policy initiatives in support of preparations for a green and sustainable Games. In this context, delivery of a Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics can be again a beacon of hope, demonstrating the value of unity, resilience and international cooperation in overcoming today’s pandemic.

In sum, this discussion on “The Olympic Games and the Rise of China” will be incomplete if it does not mention the personal ties between Chinese President Xi and the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing where they are scheduled from February 4 to 13. From bidding for the Games to the extensive preparations, he has played a leading role and vowed to present a “fantastic, extraordinary and excellent” Games to the world. An avid sports fan, Xi sees sports as a driving force for improving people’s health, an engine to stimulate social-economic growth and a showcase to project China’s cultural legacy. As a statesman, President Xi has encourage Chinese athletes to strive for excellence at the upcoming Games while vowing to deepen international cooperation for a brighter future with people of all countries: that is, harnessing the power of the Olympic spirit to promote a community of shared future for mankind.