China and the Olympics Dream

The 2012 London Olympics are officially over, with China winning 38 gold medals and taking second place after the US (46) in gold medal count.

These results are perhaps expected.  In fact, when I was traveling in Germany during the week before the opening ceremony, the unique box shop under our Berlin apartment displayed boxes with Chinese, US, and British flags on a miniature Olympics podium predicting the exact results.

But China has not always been a powerhouse in the international world of sports.  Indeed, China did not even make any impact in the Olympics until 1984.  Yet, the intriguing relationship between China and the Games have been growing since the birth of the modern Olympics.

Program for the first Olympics
Program for the first Olympics

In 1896, during the Qing dynasty, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had invited China to join in the first modern Olympics held in Athens.  At the time, the Qing government had no idea what to make of this Olympics thing, and due to both internal uncertainty and wariness of external affairs, China and the Olympics brushed past each other and went their separate ways.

Almost 20 years later, the IOC once again sent China an invitation.  But this time the year was 1915, right in the middle of World War 1.  On top of WWI, China was neck deep in dealing with unreasonable demands from Japan and was in the middle of a civil war.  Thus again China passed the Olympics by.

Back in 1908, the Tianjin Youth newspaper was the first to ask the question:  When will China send an athlete to participate in the Olympic Games?  When will China be able to send a team to the Olympics?  And when will China host the Olympic Games?  These passionate exclamations were expressed in an era when the Chinese people were contemptuously called the “sick man of Asia”.  The deep desire to prove the nations strengths to the world was born from the wounded pride of a country that once was amongst the greatest powers of the ancient world.

In 1922, China finally came into serious contact with the Olympics when the first Chinese member, ZhengTing Wong, was elected to the IOC.  Then in 1931, the China National Association for the Advancement of Sports (established in 1924) was accepted as an official team by the IOC.

cheng chun liu
1932 Olympic Games. Los Angeles, USA. Men’s 100 and 200 Metres. China’s lone representative Cheng-Chun Liu.

1932–The fated year when China steps into the Olympics Games had arrived.  The one to take the first step was a student from Northeastern University named ChangChun Liu.  Under the financial support of General XueLiang Zhang, ChangChun arrived in Los Angeles after a long 21 day trip by sea.  In the men’s 100 meters preliminaries, the exhausted ChangChun took the lead for 70 meters, before being eliminated in the end.

1936–This time instead of a sole representative, China sent out a team of 141 athletes to compete in 8 events.  After a month traveling on a tumultuous ocean, the athletes arrived at the Games all haggard and drained, and left the Games without a single medal.  China also participated in the 1948 Olympics, but once again did not receive a ranking in the 5 participating events.

With the founding of the new People’s Republic of China, China turned over a new leaf; the same could be said for their reputation in the Olympic Games.  In 1952, China accepted an invitation to the Helsinki Olympic Games.  It so happens that the team arrived late to the Games and missed many of the earlier events.  Yet, in the 100 meter backstroke, swimmer ChuanYu Wu finished in 1 min 12 seconds and became the first Chinese athlete to leave a mark in the Olympic records.  Sadly in the end, the team still went back to China without a single medal.

Xu Hai Feng
Xu Hai Feng

In 1979, China regained a seat in the IOC, and sent a team to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  In the free pistol event, HaiFeng Xu won the first Olympic gold medal for China.  At the awards ceremony, he proclaimed that “China’s time” has arrived.  By the end of the LA Olympic Games, the Chinese team astoundingly won 15 gold medals, coming in 4th place in gold medal rankings.

Subsequently, despite a short drop in performance in the Seoul Olympic Games, China’s success in the Olympic Games continued steadily.  In 1996 and 2000, China ranked 4th in the world in number of gold medals with 16 and 28 golds respectively.  Then in the 2004 Athens Games, the large team of Chinese athletes went on to win 32 gold medals, surpassing the former sports superpower Russia, and ranking second in the world.

Beijing Olympics
Beijing Olympics

Then obviously in 2008, China finally hosted its first Olympics Game in Beijing. With the home-field advantage, Chinese athletes demonstrated tremendous skill and obtained an overwhelming 51 gold, 21 silver and 28 bronze medals.  After 30 years of rapid growth, China topped the medals list and stepped out on to the world stage with a display of athletic and economic strength.

Year Host City Gold Silver Bronze
2008 Beijing 51 21 28
2004 Athens 32 17 14
2000 Sydney 28 16 15
1996 Atlanta 16 22 12
1992 Barcelona 16 22 15
1988 Seoul 5 11 12
1984 Los Angeles 15 8 9
1980 Moscow
1976 Montreal
1972 Munich
1968 Mexico City
1964 Tokyo
1960 Rome
1956 Melbourne
1952 Helsinki 0 0 0
1948 London 0 0 0
1936 Berlin 0 0 0
1932 Los Angeles 0 0 0