Foreign joyriders fire the public's imagination

Sunday's race is a test run for the greatest coming-out party of all time - the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

indy:relatedLinkBox title="565066">

In the good old, bad old days of Old Shanghai, bored expatriates made up for the lack of foxes with the "paper chase", a horseback romp through the fields of Chinese peasants - with barely a thought for the damage and distress they left strewn in their wake. Once the Communists took over in 1949, the expats fled and the concrete People's Square carpeted over Shanghai's famous racetrack, as horse racing and gambling of every sort were banned.

Having a flutter is still illegal in a nation that thirsts desperately to lay bets, but this weekend the foreign joyriders are back by invitation as the world's premier racing circus roars into town. Formula One and Michael Schumacher, or the "Prince of Cars" as he is known in Mandarin, has caught the public imagination. They grabbed far more media inches and screens than the news this week that the Communist Party boss Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin as army chief.

For sport is a greater draw than politics in today's People's Republic. Sporting heroes have long replaced Mao's model workers, while the paper Soccer Weekly easily outsells the austere People's Daily, faithful mouthpiece of the party. But do not imagine this is sport without politics. Sunday's race is a test run for the greatest coming-out party of all time - the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Athens 2004 was a wonderful appetiser for the Chinese people. The record medal haul there has raised the bar of expectation to nothing less than topping the table in four years' time, thereby overhauling the Americans, once thought invincible. At the same time, China's sudden rise has also reminded an often suspicious West that the days of state-sponsored sport did not die with East Germany.

Reflex disciplines such as table tennis and badminton were always an East Asian domain, and even an arm of Maoist foreign policy, but recent success in sports as diverse as tennis, hockey and athletics revealed the benefits of a massive population content to be groomed for success. Promising youngsters are reared in specialist institutes where the whiff of turtles' blood and other traditional medications has sometimes raised concerns. If they fail in competition there is no safety net, but riches and fame await the victors.

The hurdles gold medal and joint world record of Liu Xiang was a breakthrough of Olympian heights, justifying China's "gold medal" policy, and the estimated $700,000 (£391,000) spent by his state to speed him that far. Not every Chinese is cheering, however. "It is wrong that so much money is spent on minority sports just to win medals,'' a local businessman complained. "Formula One and the Olympics are both 'face' projects the Communist Party does to impress its citizens and the world.''

However you do the F1 maths, from the £200m track to the annual £30m fee for holding the race, the sums do not add up to an investment return within the seven-year contract Shanghai signed. But this is more about prestige than payback, and buys another calling card in China's long march towards international acceptance. China's citizens are constantly reminded of the historical sleights and heavy wounds that other countries have inflicted on them and sport offers a peaceful vehicle for revenge.

Formula One will thrive in China if it fast-tracks the careers of young drivers like 20-year-old Cheng Congfu, who recently test-drove a McLaren-Mercedes. Their future success will expunge the memory of those paper-chasing foreigners riding roughshod over China's sovereignty.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before