Does China’s superb medal haul reflect its determination to compete with the West?

John Hawksworth

China topped the medals table in Beijing with 51 golds and, despite no longer having home advantage, it again looks set to contest first place with the US in London. China’s success reflects two key factors: a huge potential talent pool of 1.3bn people and a well-funded government sports system for finding and honing that talent to maximise Olympic success. This involves funnelling down from around 400,000 young athletes selected for specialist sports schools to a pool of around 3,000 potential Olympians. China’s rapid economic growth over the past 30 years has both improved nutritional standards at the bottom of this sporting pyramid and allowed increased funding of professional coaches and the latest scientific training techniques for those at the top. It is the old USSR system brought into the twenty-first century and applied to a population over four times as large.

John Hawksworth is chief economist at PwC.

Tom Welsh
When John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, described the victory of Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen as “unbelievable”, and wrongly insinuated doping, he translated Western nervousness at China’s geopolitical rise into the pristine arena of Olympic sports. China is certainly growing in status. Its economy has a larger footprint, its military is modernising, and its diplomatic manoeuvres hold the clout of a superpower. But should we make comparisons with the USSR and its drug-pumped athletic factories? Is China using the Olympics as another stage to exhibit its ability to rival the West – by any means possible? Certainly not. It’s peculiar to isolate China for its state funding of athletes. Can anyone say the use of National Lottery and taxpayer money to promote British sport is evidence of Britain’s desire to impress its weight on the world? Hardly. It’s just what most modern states do.

Tom Welsh is financial features writer at City A.M.