China’s Sports Industry & Results : From Tradition to Modernization

Sports in China

There is no doubt probably that the most discussed nation regarding its performance in sports together with United States is China. The “Red Dragon” is the most populous nation in the world and invests a lot in athletes’ development. This has resulted in winning medals in many international prestigious competitions establishing China as a sports superpower.


In this research, the author examines China’s achievements in various sports. As a nation with increasing power over the last decades, it has drawn the attention of many sports experts and fans. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the evolution of sports culture in China and how and why unlike other countries, there are events where Chinese athletes can hardly compete at international level despite nation’s size.

The research begins with a short introduction to sports in China and their significance, with emphasis on the last two centuries. On the second and third part, performance in team and individual events is analyzed making a comparison between those two categories, including strengths and weaknesses.

The analysis comes to an end with a presentation of the results and conclusions, as well as the potential reasons behind them.


Since its first appearance in Summer Olympic Games in 1984 (from 1932 to 1948 technically it was part of Republic of China), China has a remarkable presence. Not only it has won 546 medals so far, ranked 4th overall, but it has at least one in all current Olympic Sports, except from equestrian, triathlon, water polo and rugby. This can be considered a great achievement, having in mind the limited and recent professionalization of most sports in China. It was not until 1994 that football became the first sport to be professionalized. One of the most intriguing and interesting facts though is that historically China has been performing quite mediocre in team sports, despite its population.


Throughout the history of this great civilization, sports have not been so important in Chinese society as Europe or Americas. Most of the sports practiced till 19th or 20th century were traditional ones, as well as martial arts. Others like football, basketball and tennis which are popular today around the world were introduced less than 100 or 150 years ago. During Mao’s era however, sports started having a bilateral use. Not only they were a mean of recreation, but also served as a great opportunity for the country to improve its reputation after the decline of the Chinese empire and establish itself next to countries such as Japan or USA.

Despite the controversy that his governance brought, it would be a fair assumption to make that Mao successfully reformed sports culture in China. He used to practice swimming even at his 60’s. In his first published essay in 1917 he criticized the Chinese for not exercising. “Our nation is wanting in strength” (Butterfield, 1976). He initiated a state – funded sports training program in 1950’s (Hays, 2008), that brought results very soon : In 1959 the table tennis athlete Rong Guotuan became the first ever Chinese world champion. 60 years later China has won more than 2500 world championship titles and has nearly 1500 world records. Sports industry has grown from $1 billion in 1994 to $15 billion in 2008.


The following charts demonstrate country’s performance in the two most prestigious multi – sport events it is taking part in, the Olympic Games and the Asian Games. Both take place every 4 years and China first competed in the Asian Games in 1974. It has lead the gold medal count in each Asian Games since 1982 and has been ranked top – 4 in each Olympic Games but one.

From 216 athletes and 32 medals in Los Angeles in 1984, China participated with 639 athletes and won 100 medals when it hosted the Olympic Games in 2008. Its best presence though was by far in London, where it won approximately 1 medal per 4.5 participants.

In addition, China has been dominating Asian Games. In their latest edition it won more gold medals than South Korea and Japan accumulatively, its main rivals. Since 1986 at least one third of gold medals end up to Chinese athletes.


Unlike other countries though and its overall performance, most of China’s achievements come in individual events. And this does not have to do with the number of athletes practicing each sport. For example, basketball and football are two very popular sports in the country. Approximately 18% and 12% of Chinese athletes are basketball and football players respectively (Klingelhöfer, 2017). The top – tier professional leagues in those two sports have made huge steps forward recently and quite often are hot topics of discussion among the experts and fans communities.

China is the biggest international market for NBA and the last few years even some preseason games take place there. Chinese Super League is probably the most popular destination outside Europe and Americas nowadays. Level in both leagues is not very high and corruption has not been totally overcome yet, but this has not been an obstacle for many world class foreign players to sign a contract with one of the teams playing there. Carlos Tevez, Hulk, Paulinho (football) and Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady (basketball) are just some of them. The current total market value of Chinese Super League is estimated to be 470M euros, higher than Leagues such as the Greek, the Swiss, the Ukrainian ones and close to MLS and Belgian League.

Despite the high ratio of domestic players in those two leagues (exceeding 80%), China has been unable to produce football or basketball superstars. Only basketball players Ming Yao and Jianlian Yi had a quite successful career abroad. Approximately 20% of world’s population is Chinese and still this nation has not any major achievements in international level. The national football team made its first and only appearance in FIFA World Cup back in 2002 where it finished with 0 points and 0 goals scored and has reached the Asian Cup final just twice. Surprisingly though, the women national team has won many trophies or medals. The national basketball team is more successful, but only 3 or 4 Asian nations usually are strong enough to compete China. This is also underlined by the fact that it has never finished above 8th position in The Olympic Games or the FIBA World Cup.

The below map illustrates the number of medals in The Olympic Games and World Championships since 1984 in 5 major team sports (football, basketball, volleyball, rugby union, baseball) for all G-20 nations. Men competitions are taken into consideration only. China’s poor performance is quite evident. However, if women competitions are included its overall position is slightly increased, mainly due to football and volleyball.

Chinese government set a 10 – year plan in 2015 aiming to produce 100,000 players, create 70,000 new football pitches and increase the number of football academies to 50,000 (Wheeler, 2016). By doing this it expects to improve nation’s football status.


When it comes to individual events though, the situation is totally different. Table tennis is the strongest example of China’s excellence. 6 decades ago, Mao declared it the national sport. Since its first appearance in Olympic Games in 1988, 53 out of 100 medals have been awarded to Chinese athletes. After winning all 6 available medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the format was changed so no more than 2 competitors from each country can enter an event. It is estimated that more than 10 million athletes play competitive table tennis regularly and 300 million occasionally (Lubin, 2016), a number higher than anywhere else in the world. The sport is also known as “ping – pong”, similar to the Chinese “ping – pang”. However, its roots can be found in The United Kingdom and not China.

Badminton is another individual event where the nation is amongst the most successful worldwide, leading The Olympic Games medal list. It is supported by the government with impressive amount of funding which can cover all or most of expenses of athletes who take part in international competitions. Lin Dan and Zhang Ning are holders of many records and recognized as legends of the sport.

China’ state – led sports training system is applied extensively in gymnastics, although it has been raising a lot of controversy. Many children are scouted by trainers and are separated by their families at a very young age (quite often younger than 5 or 6 years old) to join state sports schools where they are trained with only purpose to grow up and become champions (Tang, 2016). Gymnastics is a sport where athletes start and finish their career at a young age and considered difficult. On the following chart the average age of 2016 Rio Olympics medalists per nation is demonstrated. China has one of the lowest, which is even lower if trampoline is not taken into account (an event where athletes can compete even till their 30’s). The big question is if it is worthy for many of those Chinese gymnasts to leave aside their childhood to achieve this system’s goal.

Quite recently, athletics and tennis have gained a lot of fans in China. It was hurdler Liu Xiang (2004 Olympics winner and four medals in World Championships) who popularized the sport. The nation has still a lot to do to belong in the elite, but its athletes and especially those competing in track & field events have a great potential. According to American coach  Randy Huntington “China is set to become a world power in 2024 Paris Olympics”. Likewise, tennis (despite the limited access to courts in China) is one of the most broadcasted sports in the country. Female players are more successful than men and Li Na the first and only to date Asian who won a singles Grand Slam title in 2011 and 2014.

It should be mentioned nevertheless that there is a lack of balance in achievements between individual events which require finesse and those which require strength and/or other physical characteristics. Except from weightlifting which is based on strength, China has been unable to produce world class athletes in sports such as wrestling, boxing or even rowing and canoeing. This is partially explained by biometric and physical characteristics. Generally, Asian people have lower body mass index (BMI) than white people, but higher percent body fat. In other words, they are fatter and in less good shape. As the following chart illustrates, Chinese have one of the highest average BMI in Eastern and Southern Asia (Soria, 2013). Optimal values are between 18.5 and 24.9.

Even the system emphasizes more on skills training than physical training. There are not big differences in strength, power, speed and jump amongst elite athletes in sports such as diving, table tennis, archery or gymnastics. Thus being said, Chinese coaches focus on improving technique.


As explained in the previous paragraphs of this research, there are two interesting conclusions about sports in China.

  • The nation is significantly more successful in individual events than team sports. Football, basketball, volleyball, water polo, baseball and some others are followed by a remarkable number of fans and athletes, but achievements at international level are quite limited. On the other hand, China has many world class athletes in table tennis, badminton, weightlifting, gymnastics and diving for example.
  • Sports and events where athletes do not rely too much on their physical attributes have brought more medals and records to Chinese internationally. Table tennis and gymnastics are two great examples. Competitors do not need great stamina, strength or acceleration, attributes that are essential in football or basketball.

One of the main reasons behind those two conclusions is the Chinese philosophy about sports. Over the centuries, their main purpose was to train the mind, keep the harmony between man and nature and preserve health. They were an expression of art and not competition. It was not until mid – 19th century that modern sports were introduced by missionaries and many of them became popular less than 3 or 4 decades ago. Chinese used to practice events that were linked to military ideology, such as shooting, archery and martial arts.

Another important reason is the lack of infrastructure in China. Before 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was estimated that there were approximately 6.5 sports venues per 10000 people. This a very small number compared e.g. with Japan, that has 200 per 1000 people. Moreover, the vast majority of venues are located in big cities and suburbs. Only 20% are in rural areas where 42% of Chinese population lives (World Bank).

Last but not least, ordinary citizens do not exercise too much. According to the Ministry of Education, approximately 23% of children aged between 10 and 12 years old are either obese or overweight (MacLeod, 2007). Obesity in children increased four times between 1985 and 2000. This prevents many people from practicing sports where very good shape and low BMI is required.

Those three points may explain partially why China was ranked just 72th in 2016 Rio Olympics in terms of medals per capita, with 1 medal per 8.31 million citizens.

Overall, as the final chart of this study demonstrates, China has won most Olympic medals in martial arts (judo, taekwondo, wrestling, boxing) than outdoor (cycling, sailing, rowing, canoe etc.) and team sports (football, basketball, volleyball etc.) accumulatively since 1984 (ChinaPower Project, n.d.).


To sum up, China has always been more dominant against its competitors in individual events than team sports. Not only because they had longer and more important presence in history, but also due to several other reasons such as lack of infrastructure or physical attributes of Chinese. However, the number of citizens or athletes been practicing team sports is increasing over the last few years. It is expected that with all the required practical and financial support from Chinese government and other stakeholders, the moment that the nation will belong to the elite may be just a few decades away.


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