China expects: From athletes to heroes

The Olympic Games in beijing are less than three weeks away – and for China’s athletes the mission is simple: to become heroes. Clifford Coonan reports
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Prominently displayed in every sports hall in every town in China is a large red flag and a banner in bold Chinese characters exhorting the athletes below to always do their best to love and honour China.

The slogans say things like: "Pick the best shoots; build a good foundation; actively prepare for the 2008 Olympics". Beneath them, all over China, supple and compact gymnasts, hopeful teenage swimmers and eager young basketball stars eat, drink and breathe the Olympics in their daily life with a measure of dedication that is rare in Western society.

It was beneath banners like these that world-class competitors such as the basketball star Yao Ming, the hurdler Liu Xiang and the gymnast Yang Wei were moulded into complete, dedicated athletes. Their job at the Beijing Olympic Games, which run from 8 to 24 August, will be no less than to transform China's dreams of sporting excellence into reality.

China does not have a club system as in the West: everything is organised through the state, by state-sponsored schools or other government-run organisations. The rigid system has been criticised by both foreign and domestic commentators for putting too much pressure on people, for focusing on producing superb sportsmen and women at the expense of individual happiness. But the athletes and coaches you meet are uninterested in these concerns. For them, their job is to create, or become, heroes.

Success as an athlete means privileges that millions of other Chinese children don't have, a chance of making something of themselves in the future. And who has made more of himself than Yao Ming (pictured above), China's most famous athlete?

It's hard to describe how important Yao is in China. All over the country, people are naming their children "Aoyun", which is the Chinese for Olympics. However, they are also naming their children after Yao, the Houston Rockets basketball team's centre, and the tallest man in the US National Basketball Association at seven feet six inches. His bed is due to be auctioned for charity after the Games and people are already bidding.

Yao is staunchly patriotic. When he joined the NBA, he promised to give half his salary to the Chinese sports authorities and was named a "model and advanced worker", the first NBA player to win China's highly prized Revolutionary Award normally reserved for bona-fide proletarians, such as bus conductors, coal miners and industrial workers who work hard and closely follow Marxist principles.

Yao is currently struggling to get fit in time for the Games, and his comments show just how much pressure these athletes work under. Do not be surprised if a less-than-fit Yao still turns out, however.

"If I could not participate in the Olympics, it would be a life-long regret," he says. "I will do my best to play in the Olympics. This is a challenge, personally. I will strive to help the Chinese team to achieve a breakthrough in history on the medals podium."

China is a fiercely secular country that has embraced capitalism in recent years but is still a Communist state. Sport is a substitute religion and the country has the centrally planned society's love of its sporting heroes.

When I first met Yang Wei (pictured page 24) before the Athens Olympics, where China's gymnasts underwhelmed, I was struck by his confidence, but also the way he was already thinking beyond the 2004 Games to the contest in Beijing, capital of the Motherland. "The 2008 Olympic Games will be the chance for me to push myself towards the physical limit," he said.

On the face of it, two weeks of sporting fixtures seems a flimsy foundation upon which to build a country's ambitions for the future, but the fact that the eyes of the world will be watching China for that fortnight in August has meant the Communist Party was always going to want to use the event to highlight the economic progress China has made in the past generation. Half a million foreign visitors will attend, joined by three million Chinese, and a couple of billion are expected to watch on television.

China's focus on the Olympics is all the more remarkable when you consider that the People's Republic of China only won its first Olympic medal in the Los Angeles Games in 1984. But by the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, it finished third in the medals' tally behind the USA and Russia.

The victory of Liu Xiang (right) in the 110-metre hurdles at the 2004 Olympics in Athens was the first win for China in a sprint event. Many Chinese believed he had overcome a genetic disposition that limits Chinese people's ability to win in track and field.

"For the Chinese, sporting events represent something deep and fundamental – a validation of their nation's long labours towards international acceptance, a sign that China has overcome its 'century of humiliation and shame' to become a full member of the community of nations," writes Xu Guoqi in his book Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.

President Hu Jintao has urged those taking part to provide not only first-class facilities but to remember that "we also have first-class management, and we can provide first-class service". He has even put vice-president Xi Jinping, widely tipped as a successor to Hu, in charge of making sure the Olympics are a success.

The rhetoric of the politicians is as fierce as that of the competitors. China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, promised Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, that "the Chinese government and the 1.3 billion Chinese people would follow the Olympic spirit, work hard in all aspects of preparations for the Beijing Olympic Games, enhance cooperation with the international community and make sure China could successfully stage a high-level Olympic Games with distinctive features and fulfill China's commitments to the world."

It's not just celebrity athletes and Communist Party officials who are feeling the patriotic flush of the Olympic Dream – ordinary Chinese are queuing up in droves to get involved.

"Anyone can be a volunteer!" proclaim huge advertising hoardings around the capital. As well as the 100,000 Olympic and Paralympic volunteers, city authorities aimed to recruit 400,000 "urban" volunteers and a million "social" volunteers. As well as the athletes who will take part, hundreds of thousands of Beijingers have answered the call.