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  • Op Ed - Let the Good Times Roll for Elite Chinese Sport


    (ATR) Sports marketing veteran Jeff Ruffolo suggests money is no object as China sets its sights on nothing less than winning every single medal at the Summer Olympic Games.
    Jeff Ruffolo at a 2007 press briefing in Beijing. (ATR)

    It’s nice to have a rich grandfather.

    Or better yet, have black gold – crude oil – seeping up through your floorboards. If you too lived the life of Jed Clampett and The Beverly Hillbillies, you could do just about anything you wanted.

    In the world of elite sports here in the People’s Republic of China, let the good times roll.

    It's the Roaring 20s – sans Prohibition – in China, where the seemingly impossible three decades ago during the heart of the Cultural Revolution is today commonplace.

    The sport of baseball is one very good example. Considered decadent by Chairman Mao and through the willing hands of devotees in the 1960s, the American pastime was obliterated from the sports landscape, only to make a brief appearance during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games … to again fade from the sports landscape … probably forever.

    During its resurgence in Beijing for the Olympics and later in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou in 2010 for the 16th Asian Games, baseball had its proverbial “moment in the sun”. The sport had its one chance to win glory and honor for the “Motherland” and by doing so, preserve the financial umbilical lifeline provided for those elite programs that are considered “winners” by the Chinese Government. But even after all of the grand promises made by Major League Baseball, Team China, led by former MLB Rookie of the Year and Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Jim Lefebvre, won only one game and fell flat during the ’08 Olympics.

    And when Team China lost, baseball in this country was doomed.

    It certainly didn’t help that the sport was later removed from the Olympic roster of competition.

    Baseball is now dead in China, moaning and slouching like a zombie.

    There is a natural order of things when it comes to sports in the PRC, and only if you are winning do you see the financial good times. The Chinese are fixated about winning medals at the Summer Olympic Games, especially gold. The Asian Games and Winter Olympics are nice, but it's the Olympiad that the bosses in Beijing really care about. Over the coming decades, the overriding Chinese goal is to win nothing less than every medal at the Summer Olympic Games.

    This bears repeating so you understand the impact of what is really happening here in China.

    Listen carefully … every single Olympic medal.

    Impossible you say. No one has THAT kind of money to put together an unstoppable elite sports program that is simply unrivaled around the world?

    To do that will cost “big time” money. Nearly infinite. Money for training. Money to hire the best international coaches and lavish on them financial rewards that would make even the NBA blush. Money. Money. Money.

    But there is one unmovable position by the Chinese Government when it comes to their elite sports …

    Losers need not apply.

    Let’s go back to baseball for just a moment … the Chinese Government pumped in more than $30 million (that’s with an "m") to build three Olympic baseball stadiums; and these were all temporary stadiums that had one single use – for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Today, all the Olympic Stadiums have been leveled and weeds grow 10 feet tall and cover what is left of center field. In Guangzhou for the 2010 Asian Games, the run-down downtown softball field was gutted and rebuilt – again at the cost of millions of dollars - for this one single event. Likewise for the Asian Games, a new baseball stadium was built that could rival any Minor League team in America. Now, two years later, both softball and baseball stadiums in Guangzhou lay abandoned and are never used.

    This is how it is in China.

    If your sport is one that China is required to have as host at an event like the Olympics and if that sport has even the slightest possibility of winning a medal, then money is truly no object.


    First – hosting that sport to the world gains face and great glory for the Motherland – irrespective of if Team China is winning. It is a complex, centuries-old concept in China, and the modern-day version has not changed throughout the years, and second – it really does matter what the foreigners think here when they step onto the field of play in China. The Chinese want their visitors to have the best of everything even if their players have to sacrifice. Once these mega-events like the Olympics, Asian Games, World University Games in Shenzhen and the upcoming Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing are over, that city or region then has the very best sports venues in the world.

    Yet when the foreigners leave, the music stops and the TV cameras are turned off; all of the multi-billions of dollars spent on buildings are just … there. The event organizers just walk away. Rarely will these stadiums, if ever, be used, and frankly the Chinese don't really seem to care. One day they may need that venue for one event or another and then it will be used. Otherwise all of these awesome facilities just sit and sit and sit – vacant. To give you a sense of comparison, in Athens, Greece, the Greek government is, today, spending $1 million a month to maintain their empty buildings from the 2004 Summer Olympic Olympics. Doing a bit of calculation … that would be $12 million a year or more than $80 million (so far) to keep the lights on in Olympic venues that no one ever uses. Clearly it doesn’t cost that much here in the PRC but again money is just not the object.

    When it comes to football, you can just about pick the soccer venue that you want Team China to work out in and to host any foreign team. Here in Guangzhou, more millions were spent in a complete renovation of the Tianhe Football Stadium for its single use during the Asian Games – today, it is the home field for the local Evergrande pro team. But this is an exception. For the most part, none of these venues is ever used.

    The General Administration of Sport in Beijing is the first, last and only sports authority in China. What it says is the Gospel and that is that. This one governing entity makes all decisions on what money goes where and for what. The elite sports that have gained the financial “blessing” of this all-powerful Chinese Government agency include:

    • Gymnastics
    • Aquatics
    • Table Tennis
    • Badminton
    • Volleyball
    • Basketball

    Funding for the smaller (or more obscure) Olympic sports such as shooting or equestrian is limited and are really only focused on in the months prior to an Olympics or Asian Games, the next being in Incheon, Korea in 2014. The interesting thing to watch here is what will be the Chinese position relating to their elite Olympic sports once the 2014 Summer Youth Olympic Games and 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing are over. These events will complete the current run of global hosted elite sports events here in China dating back to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics with nothing on the horizon as far as the eye can see.

    More than likely, China will bid again for the Summer Olympic Games and will put Guangzhou up for international consideration. Having successfully rebuilt itself for the 2010 Asian Games, at a cost that no one will ever really know, Guangzhou has everything in place to host the Olympics.

    Shanghai might be next but lacks the sports infrastructure necessary to host the Games.

    But then again – who cares when money is no object?

    Let the good times roll!

    Jeff Ruffolo served as Senior Expert for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee and Executive Advisor for the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou. He is author of Inside the Beijing Olympics and can be reached at

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