Not only must the Chinese sports hierarchy overcome cultural imperatives, but a strong sense of genetic disadvantage as well. Susan Brownell, 27, a former nationally ranked U.S. heptathlete who was in Beijing doing research for a dissertation on the anthropology of Chinese sport, says that virtually all Chinese athletes are convinced that they're physically inferior to other races; that blacks are dramatically superior to them and Caucasians significantly so. Though there's no scientific evidence to back up this notion, it may serve as the basis for a self-fulfilling defeatism. Certainly the Chinese have enjoyed almost all their successes in so-called technique sports—gymnastics, diving and the like—or in those that are largely a matter of precision and hand-eye coordination—table tennis, riflery, archery, etc.
The exception that proves this rule is the Chinese women's volleyball team of a few years ago. It won a number of international titles, culminating with the 1984 Olympic gold medal. It's revealing, Brownell says, that the team's coach. Yuan Weimin, concentrated as much on philosophy as fundamentals. He had to persuade the team that it could win, that it was all right to win, that China was allowed to win a head-to-head game.
And when the Chinese women scored their first great victory, an upset of the Japanese to win the 1981 world title, there were celebrations throughout China. The fact that the Japanese had been beaten meant as much as the championship. The Chinese not only feel somewhat alien to sport, and physically inferior, but they also have an acute sense of cultural humiliation that the West and Japan have left them behind.
As a consequence, a sophisticated selection process to identify potential champions is obligatory for China. In Changsha, the capital of agricultural Hunan Province, I visited one of the local training centers the selectees attend—such centers are at the base of the pyramid that reaches its apex with the national teams—and talked with gymnasts no older than 11 who had the muscular development of matured teenagers, the discipline of soldiers, the devotion of monks. A little thing named Shendin had been brought in off a farm hundreds of miles away and wouldn't see her parents for months. Don't you miss them? "Oh no, the teachers are very good to me," she said.
For those few who actually succeed on the world stage, there are rewards: better food and clothing, relaxed standards on college entrance exams (student-athletes: how utterly socialistic!), cash bonuses, larger and better (in some cases, exquisite) living quarters. In a crammed nation that must share foul communal toilets, whose executives endure one-room family apartments and where private ownership of a car is beyond hope, sports stars are relatively more privileged than are the West's millionaire athletes. One Ping-Pong champ, Jiang Jialiang, recently purchased a $20,000 apartment, which is an absolute castle in China. By contrast, 21 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, Jung Kuotuan, one of China's greatest table-tennis champions, committed suicide to escape being hounded by Red Guards, who termed him a "sports elitist."
Along these same lines, it appears to be China's saving grace that its memory is as short as its history is long. Hundreds of thousands of Red Guards are now 45 years old or so. They're parents of little kings and queens, and they spend their workdays trying to figure out how to hustle another yuan here and there. What does the Old Guard do at night? It watches sports on TV—there are 80 million sets in China—including a lot of games from the erstwhile evil West. Why, China may not have great plumbing, but it's mature enough to have had some dandy soccer riots, just as Europe has, and when students took to the streets in December 1986, demanding democracy, barely anybody—including those former Red Guards—blinked, because China had recently been edged by South Korea in table tennis, and everybody on the Radio Beijing phone-in shows was calling to bemoan that dreadful turn of events. Never mind the government: Fire the coach!
The Asian Games will be held in Beijing in 1990, but one can get a peek now at what sporting China may look like soon enough by attending the dragon-boat races. They are, to China, what football is to Texas, bullfighting to Spain.
Dragon boats are wonderful to behold. They seat 26. Twenty-three row. One steers. One bangs the gong. One beats the drum. While the Chinese have been racing these boats for centuries, it wasn't until 1984 that a Western-style national championship was held. This year more than 300,000 spectators showed up for the three-day men's and women's championships in June, around the monsoon season, in, fortuitously, this Year of the Dragon. They were staged in Yueyang, in Hunan Province, and nothing like the dragon-boat races had ever been seen there before. Yueyang is a city of almost half a million souls—about the same size as metropolitan Mobile, Ala.—but in China that's just a wide spot in the road. Yueyang doesn't even possess a commercial airport, and express trains dash through.
But what a time was had by all! The poor peasants, who could get in for as little as three yuan (about 80¢), were so gaga they barely noticed the monsoon mud they sloshed through. The vendors sold souvenirs and knickknacks and all manner of local vittles. One sign actually said FAST FOOD in Mandarin. That was a dish of rice and vegetables: six yuan. The commercial sponsors of the event had the right to erect billboards, just as in your local ballpark. One was for birth control, a subject Chinese are never allowed to forget. Imagine, if you will: "Hi, football fans, today's game is brought to you by beer, tires and birth control."
The competitors' area had more the air of a Tuesday night softball game than of a national championship, with the young men and women drifting about, stepping barefoot around broken bottles in the mud, flirting a bit, sharing a cigarette. Most male competitors smoked, just as almost 60% of all Chinese men do. This worries the government some, but since tobacco is the largest commercial source of revenue in China, the authorities are hamstrung: China is, economically, just a very large Winston-Salem.