Many experts agree that in London this summer, as in Beijing in 2008, China is likely to win more gold medals than any other country. Following the collapse of the USSR — and decades of its domination in international sport — Team USA took a brief lead in the Olympic arena, but that lead is now being eclipsed by another economic, political and sporting giant — China. The United States is surely asking itself now how it can prevail over the new dominance of Chinese athletes.
China borrowed the sports structures of the Soviet Union in the 1960s, specifically subsidized sport for all. Beginning in the 1980s, it has also been adopting the best of American sports practices at all levels, from macro organizational to micro athlete management. China now integrates capitalist structure with public support of athletics across all Olympic sports, and tries to adopt best practices from each part of the world.
There is no doubt that it holds the lead in the mass participation structures that underpin elite sport performance, structures that include:
a uniform national physical education curriculum of great quantity and quality;
well-educated professional coaches at each level, including beginners;
affordable local training and competitions for all, including free outdoor fitness facilities;
age-specific, long-term athlete development that nurtures participants from their very first steps up to the highest level of performance
To reclaim its brief Olympic dominance, the United States must try to emulate the same elite and mass sport development practices to beat China that it attempted with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We have already adopted a number of successful international practices and support of American athletes is particularly strong in a small number of commercial professional competitions, and at high schools, universities, elite training centres, academies, and in the army.
China’s sport schools, colleges and universities, however, are heavily subsidized. The country’s national team hopefuls study at no cost in boarding schools; others can join for a fee. It is hard for the United States to compete against China without similar strong public support of sport academies and fair opportunities for all talented children regardless of their family income. China is able to afford such public support thanks to lottery funding, another common structure of successful sporting nations. This concept has yet to be developed in the United States.
The key organizational structure present in China—and in all successful and progressive sport nations except the United States—is the presence of a governmental agency that develops sport in the same way it supports other national policies such as improvement of the nation’s health and education. Governments across the globe increasingly provide financial and methodological support to national sport governing bodies, clubs, educational institutions and other organizations to develop both elite athletes and mass or recreational sport.
If the United States is to achieve these goals, the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition should consider enlisting the cooperation of federal health, education and other departments as well as sport organizations. Without adopting the best of Chinese and international sport management methods, America has little chance of stopping China’s domination in the international sporting arena; the parallels to its prior pursuit of the former Soviet Union are eerily similar.
It will take the country’s leaders to make this happen. President Obama, like President Kennedy, has progressive views on the advancement of health care, science, education, and sport. Conservative political powers, however, may again be too strong to balance public and private support of sport. If history repeats itself, though, we may be able to count on the further development of American sport being—at the very least—accelerated by China’s challenge, just as it was in the past by the athletic challenge from the Soviet Union. The Olympic spectacle can only become more dramatic when different political systems clash for global dominance.
Peter Smolianov, who received his university degrees in the USSR, the United States and Australia, is associate professor of sport and movement science at Salem State University. His research has appeared in 40 book chapters, journal articles and conference papers across the world. He most recently authored a chapter on comparative high performance sport models in the book Managing High Performance Sport (Routledge).