China at the Olympics

It is 18:00 on Thursday 2 August as I write this. We are one week into the London Olympics.  My family and I have seen one of the three live events we have tickets for (beach volleyball), and watched a number of other ones on TV, all of which we have enjoyed.  So now I find myself looking at the medal tables…

  • My adopted country, the UK, is ranked fifth overall with 14 medals, 5 of which are gold.
  • My home country, the USA, which I proudly (and loudly) root for, is second place overall with 31 medals, 14 of them gold
  • And while they are not as crushingly dominant as they were as Beijing in 2008, China commands an unmistakable first place in the world rankings, with 18 gold medals and 32 medals overall

I look at this result and ask myself how I feel about it.

And you know what?  Despite all the accusations, the recriminations, and the other assorted moaning and wailing, I find that my reactions to all of the above are almost entirely positive.

Let’s talk about China first.  I have read the accusations about Ye Shiwen, and find them baseless and small-minded.  Nobody leveled such accusations about Michael Phelps’ astonishing superiority of mens’ swimming in 2008.  This is nothing more than thinly veiled xenophobia.

The fact is that China deserves its place at the top of the rankings.  Start with the world’s largest population.  Add to this a personal work ethic that no other nation in the world comes close to matching.  And layer on top of this the huge investment that China makes in its athletes, with over 3,000 dedicated athletic training centers around the country.  This investment, this dedication, this passion for excellence has paid off.

Let’s look at the UK next, fifth in the rankings overall.  If you ask most British people how they feel about this result, you will hear a lot about opportunities missed, but the reality is  an admirable result.  Let’s look at the numbers: the UK is 6th in a ranking of countries by GDP, 22nd by population, and 80th by size.  Their performance far outstrips countries that ought to be beating them handily.  I attribute this to their excellent education system (both public and private) and to a strong sporting culture. Recall that the Brits were key drivers in the resurrection of the Olympics in the first place (interestingly, their medal ranking in the first modern Olympics in 1896 was the same as it is today: fifth).  And finally, hats off to the UK for a fabulous opening ceremony.  The Olympic rings, forged and hammered out of molten steel, is an indelible image that will burn in my mind forever.

And finally, what about the US?  If you read the editorial page of the newspaper in any major city, you will find a host of discontent that we have fallen behind China in the overall medal results.  But I see a very different message

  • China has four times as many people as the US
  • Despite having a GDP one third the size of the US, China outspends the US on the development of its athletes by at least two to one
  • An aspiring athlete in the US must find a way to pay for their education, coaching, and development; all but the proven top echelons need to stay in full-time employment while training.  An aspiring athlete in China belongs to a program that fully supports and caters to all their needs, removing anything but training from their list of worries.

And yet, despite all of China’s inherent advantages, the US manages to stay in very close competition with China.  This is nothing short of amazing, and makes me very proud to be American.  Why do we continue to do so well?   This is a great question.  I have some ideas, but want to think about it and read some more before I venture an opinion.

Meanwhile, tomorrow will be a big day at the Olympics:

  • Wujdan Shahrkhani, one of the first two women that Saudi Arabia has ever sent to the Olympics, will be competing in women’s judo.  I wish her every success.
  • My favorite beach volleyball team, Kerry Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, whom I have supported since Athens in 2004, enters the elimination rounds. They won all three matches in the preliminary rounds, but in the last match they lost one of their sets — the first time that has ever happened.  Do they have a third consecutive Olympic gold medal in them?  Soon we shall see.
  • And finally, our amazing football team plays against New Zealand in the quarter-finals.  I’ve got tickets for the semi-finals, which means that if the Americans win tomorrow, we get the thrill of going to one of football’s greatest shrines, Old Trafford, to cheer our team to victory!

These then are my thoughts on the Olympics so far.  I salute the Chinese team and congratulate them on their victory so far.  But stay focused, China, and keep striving for excellence.  We are close behind and do not give up easily :-)

Sources and more information

  • As usual, most of my facts and figures come from Wikipedia.  The usual disclaimers from using a publicly editable data source apply.
  • The gold medal image comes from the Guardian; the picture of Ye Shiwen and the US football team comes from the Telegraph. Both are British newspapers
  • Finally, I want to recommend an excellent article, also in the Guardian.  Written by a British swimming coach who was hired by China to come be a coach within their swimming program, it gives a very insightful inside view into China’s investment in athletic excellence.  You can find it here:
    Chinese athletes at these Olympics train harder than anyone in the world
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One thought on “China at the Olympics

  1. A balanced and informative contribution.

    Even on pure statistical probability China are likely to generate a large number of first class athletes. When combined as you say, with well targeted selection funding and training regimes success becomes much more likely

    Australia by contrast has for decades relied on the depth of raw talent generated by high school and club swimming and a small range of other sports. For decades sports such as Fencing have languished with neither funding nor media attention and our failure even to field a full coverage of men’s and women’s events is a disgrace.

    Australia was below our usual placing in Athens, Beijing and now London even in swimming. If we are to avoid sliding lower in future then we must invest. This will be problematic though as Australia has a long history of squandering talent and opportunity through pursuing short term easy extractive/exploitation strategies. See Jared Diamond “Collapse” for a detailed discussion.

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