China's 100-year dream, a cure for the sick man of Asia

BEIJING (Reuters) - China hails the Beijing Olympics as the fulfillment of its “100-year dream”, a slogan that harks back to a time when China was “the sick man of Asia” and looked to sport to help it return to its former status.

British diver Tom Daley takes a practice dive during a training session at the National Aquatics Center ahead of the Beijing 2008 Olympic games August 7, 2008. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Despite the great changes in China over the century since YMCA members in Tianjin first challenged the Chinese to take part in the Olympics, little has changed in that motivation.

“For the communist regime, as it was for the Nationalist government before, sports have never been simply for personal fun or physical competition,” Xu Guoqi, author of Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008, said in an e-mail.

“It is about national honor or shame, about political legitimacy, and even about Chinese position in the family of nations.”

Sport has a long tradition in China. FIFA recognizes the country’s 11th century “kick ball” as the origin of modern soccer, while claims are also made for golf being invented in the Middle Kingdom.

Most sporting activity, though, was either related to military skill, such as mounted archery, or inner harmony and discipline for the individual, as in the case of Tai Chi.

For women, of course, old traditions of foot binding and social taboos about the exposure of flesh made taking part in sport an impossibility.

Around the turn of the 20th century, with China’s status in the world plummeting, some Chinese started to look to the West for solutions to the humiliations of foreign invasions and lit upon the newly revived Olympics.

“Chinese elite members ... started to link Western sports with China’s national fate and embraced Olympics as effective medicine to cure the ‘sick man of Asia’,” Xu added.

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The origin of the ‘century dream’ was an article in 1908 in the YMCA’s publication in China called Tiantsin Young Men, which challenged China to take part in, and one day host, an Olympics.

“In the following decades, Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong both were involved into this trend of thoughts and were influenced by such ideas,” said Tan Hua, lecturer in sports history at the South China Normal University in Guangzhou.


Much of the early team sport in China went on in Christian missionary schools and it was not until 1932 that the country was finally represented at the Olympics. Even that single athlete had to negotiate the turmoil that had gripped the country, though.

The Japanese puppet state in northeast China, Manchukuo, wanted to enter sprinter Liu Changchun under its flag but he refused and, after the intervention of General Zhang Xueliang, he ran for China in the heats of the 100 and 200m.

Nationalist China was represented at the next three Games without any success. The delegation from the People’s Republic arrived late but still managed to raise its flag in the Olympic Village in Helsinki in 1952.

“In the first half of the last century, the development of sport was a pastime, but after the PRC was founded, it became government action,” Tan added.

“Partly it was because of Russian infection. It was the Russians who suggested the newly-born country to take part in the 1952 Olympics. Afterwards Chinese political leaders also linked the result of sports games to the nation’s glory.”

China invested heavily in preparations for the 1956 Games in Melbourne but at the last moment withdrew after Taiwan raised its flag as Formosa China.

The Taiwan issue kept China out of the Olympic movement until the late 1970s and the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games over the invasion of Afghanistan kept them away for another four years.

After Xu Haifeng claimed China’s first Olympic title at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the trickle of gold medals quickly became a flood and thoughts soon turned to hosting the Games.

They lost out to Sydney in a bid to host the 2000 Games -- the vote was taken in 1993 just four years after the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square were crushed -- and more humility and accommodation was apparent in the next bid for 2008.

“Beijing moved from ‘asking what the Games can do for China’ reflected in its 1993 bid to something like ‘what China can do for the Games’,” Xu said.

Success followed at the vote in Moscow in 2001, sparking delirious celebrations from hundreds of thousands of people in Tiananmen Square and millions around the country.

“Chinese people ... have suffered from this syndrome of mixing the “can-do” spirit and inferiority complex simultaneously,” Xu said.

“They want to demonstrate to the world that China is strong country now. But they are not so confident that the outsiders accept China’s new status and therefore want to use the Games to prove it.”