China has created a vigorous state system that has produced elite national athletes
But some argue the emphasis on winning has discouraged many children
At the other end of the scale, sport is not considered a part of your education in China
China has also struggled in sports like football, interest in holding a Winter Olympics is low
Off-camera, I’m getting parenting advice from China’s first athlete to win gold in any sport at the Winter Olympics.
“Your daughter should go for ice skating,” Yang Yang advises me. “It’s great for her balance!”
My five-year old is more swimmer than skater but I appreciate Yang’s words and especially her intention. She’s encouraging me to share the life-changing benefits of sport, not to necessarily groom a future Olympian.
Yang herself is a product of a vigorous state system that created elite national athletes. She brought home that long-awaited gold medal in short-track speed skating from the Salt Lake City Olympiad in 2002.
To realize her dream, Yang tells me she skated for 23 years, six days a week, for almost 12 hours a day.
“Once you become an athlete, you want to win. That’s the most important thing,” she says.
Kids driven away
While Yang says there is nothing wrong with winning, Tom Byer, who works as a coach and educator in a grassroots football program, says that winning has become so overly emphasized that it discourages children from sport.
“Winning of course is a natural response for every athlete,” Byer says. “But it can also get in the way. And this is what’s happening in grassroots sports all over China, is that the winning has become so important, it drives kids out of the sport.”
China may have taken gold in plenty of Olympic events, from speed skating to gymnastics, but it struggles to simply qualify for the World Cup or generate mainstream interest in its bid to host the 2022 Winter Games.
Byer blames a fixation on training elite champions in select sports and an education system that considers sports a luxury and not a priority.
“In the West, we look more at physical education as part of education, whereas here, for many years, the educators have tried to keep sport out of education,” he tells me.
But Olympic chief Thomas Bach assures me that will change.
“I had the opportunity to meet President Xi Jinping twice,” says the International Olympic Committee President. “You see clearly the government has realized that sport must be part of education and that sport helps in education.”
Byer is doing his part as the Head Technical Adviser to the Chinese School Football program, a project that works with two million children in more than 6,200 schools across China. His success at teaching football skills to students in Japan earned him stardom there, and an invitation to bring his technical magic to China.
But while charismatic coaches fan out across China’s schools – and Xi proclaims his love for football – it could take years to change the nation’s attitude toward sport… and for China to build an industry around it.
Shanghai-based Sheng Li is one of China’s top sports agents. He laments how professional sports in China lack the infrastructure to make more money for his clients, like professional boxer and Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming.
“If you come through the national system, you have the coach and the training system,” Li says. “But there’s a whole system behind a (professional) athlete: the PR, the brand, the corporate sponsorship, helping them find the best coaches outside the system.
“That’s a whole new system we’re starting to build.”
Yang is supporting China’s athletes after their Olympic dream with the Athlete Career Program she started as part of her foundation.
She’s also getting more children interested in sport with a new skating school in Shanghai that is open to everyone.
On top of that, she’s leading the charge for China’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. China, along with Kazakhstan and Norway, is a finalist to host the event.
Winning the bid and hosting the games would transform the sport scene in China, sparking greater interest in winter sports like snowboarding, skiing and skating.
More than a decade ago, Yang was in it to win it. Today, she’s using her Olympic legacy to bring a love of her sport to the masses.