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Something to Prove -- In Modern China, Sports Have Always Been Political

May 26, 2008

Reviewed by Edward Cody
The Washington Post
May 25, 2008; BW05

OLYMPIC DREAMS
China and Sports, 1895-2008
By Xu Guoqi
Harvard University 377 pp. $29.95

The Chinese government has said over and over in the last few months
that the Beijing Olympics should not be politicized. The uproar over
Tibet has no place in the Games, officials insist. Nor do
humanitarian concerns over Sudan's Darfur region belong in the
Olympic spotlight. As for human rights in China itself, well, that's
an internal matter.

Yet, politics have long been at the heart of China's relations with
the modern Olympic movement, as Xu Guoqi, an associate professor at
Kalamazoo College, shows in his illuminating history, Olympic Dreams.
The first time China participated in the Games, in 1932 at Los
Angeles, the goal was to prevent Japan from scoring a propaganda
coup. Japanese occupation authorities had planned to dispatch a
stocky Chinese sprinter named Liu Changchun to represent the
Manchukuo republic, the puppet state Japan had set up in Manchuria
and Mongolia. To foil that plan, China's Nationalist government
hurriedly scraped together some money and sent Liu as a one-man
Chinese delegation. He fared poorly as a sprinter but held high the
Chinese flag.

Later on, Mao Zedong saw sports victories as a way to prove the
superiority of the socialist way. On advice from the U.S.S.R., China
cultivated national teams. But during the first two decades of
Communist rule, China kept its athletes out of the Olympics to
protest Taiwan's participation. (More recently, both China and Taiwan
have sent teams under artful compromises over the island's name.)

When Mao decided the time had come to make friends in the West, he
also found sports a handy tool for that purpose. Mao and President
Nixon had been exchanging secret messages through intermediaries for
months before the Chinese sent a team to the World Table Tennis
Championship in Japan in April 1971. As Xu relates, Zhou En-lai, who
was in charge of foreign relations, issued detailed instructions to
the Chinese players on what to do if they met Americans. "The Chinese
were not permitted to exchange team flags," for example, but they
"could shake hands," Xu notes. When American player Glenn Cowan
jumped on a Chinese bus to greet Chinese star Zhuang Zedong, Zhuang
was ready with a silk painting to present as a gift. Mao then gave
the order for the Chinese players to invite the U.S. team to China;
by the end of the month, the Americans had alighted in Beijing. "The
small ping-pong ball, worth only about 25 cents, played a unique and
significant role . . . in transforming Sino-U.S. relations," Xu concludes.

Even before Mao, sports had played an eminently political role in
China. Chinese nationalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
saw athletics as a way to create vigorous men who could wage war and
change the country's reputation as the "sick man of east Asia." As
part of the national revival they hoped to foster, they embraced
Western sports to counter the Mandarin paradigm of Chinese men as
spindly, sedentary and effete.

Despite the reformers' efforts, to some degree the old paradigm has
remained alive. Traditionally, most Chinese have been brought up to
think they should be clever, disciplined and able to bear hardship,
but not powerful or swift. Because Yao Ming's jousts with fellow NBA
giants and Liu Xiang's triumph in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004
Athens Olympics shattered racial stereotypes, they were hailed as
breakthroughs by a new generation of Chinese. The 2008 Beijing
Olympics, where China hopes to win more medals than any other nation,
also was intended to have a political message.

Since abandoning doctrinaire socialism three decades ago, China has
enjoyed an economic explosion that has given its 1.3 billion people a
standard of living their parents could hardly imagine, and the
government has entered into normal relations with most countries,
becoming a diplomatic as well as an economic player in Asia and
beyond. By hosting the Games, China was going to celebrate this
status. Perhaps more important, it was going to receive international
recognition of its achievements and, in some measure, acceptance of
the Communist Party's glacial pace toward political change.

Xu's misfortune, and China's, is that this landscape, which he ably
paints in his final chapter, shifted not long after the manuscript
was sent to the printer. Riots in Tibet and protests along the
Olympic Torch relay route created a global audience for questions
about China's worthiness to host the Olympics. The atmosphere has
soured badly, and no one knows whether it can be repaired before the
Games begin in August.

The May 12 earthquake in Sichuan also will affect the Olympics. A
country in mourning, China is likely to attract sympathy. But sorrow
may change the tone of the event. Xu's history of China's
participation in the Olympics remains enlightening, but the unsettled
2008 Games have become the stuff of journalism, changing every day. ·

Edward Cody is The Post's Beijing bureau chief.
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