China deals with sporting failure

Legendary Italian coach Marcello Lippi was today announced as the new manager of the Chinese (men’s) national team. The second coming of now-twice former coach Gao Hongbo lasted less than a year, after a series of disappointing results in World Cup qualifying. The men’s team has not qualified for a World Cup since 2002 (its only appearance), when the squad was coached by the nomadic Serb Bora Milutinović, a specialist in wringing the most out of underperforming teams. Lippi is best known in Europe as the former Juventus and World Cup winning Italian national team coach. But in his later career, Lippi has steered Guangzhou Evergrande to three Chinese domestic titles and established the club as a major powerhouse in Asian competition (before handing over the reins to Felipe Scolari in 2014).

Lippi inherits a national team that is in the doldrums, having lost four of its last five games (three of them qualifiers). As national manager Lippi will not be able to call on the expensive foreign talent that has enlivened the Chinese Super League season just completed. As a Hall of Fame coach, and with Xi Jinping having declared his ambitions for the rejuvenation of Chinese soccer, Lippi will be expected to achieve significant improvements. The public mood after the humbling loss to Syria, a nation in the midst of terrible turmoil with a team ranked 114 at the time of the match, was one of derision and anger, which spilled onto the streets and was primarily directed at Cai Zhenhua, Head of the Chinese FA. Gao was sacrificed and Lippi ushered in.

The question of patriotic Chinese sports fans’ reaction to disappointment was raised in a different context earlier this year, when, by the standards of recent Games, the Chinese national team underwhelmed at the Rio Olympics. Team China brought home a “mere” 26 gold medals, the fewest gold medals since Atlanta in 1996 less than half the golds it secured in Beijing in 2008, despite taking its largest ever contingent of 411 competitors to Brazil. There were some inspiring performances by Chinese athletes, notably the underdog women’s volleyball team, which overcame early defeats to win the gold medal. This was an unfancied team relying on hard work and determination, led by “prodigal daughter” Coach Lang Ping, who had coached the US team to victory in Beijing in 2008, having starred as a player for the Chinese team three decades earlier. But other individual athletes and fancied teams in gymnastics and badminton under-performed. Such is the nature of elite sport, where the smallest dip in form or change in conditions or luck can make the difference between winning and losing.

Unlike the chronically feeble men’s soccer team, Chinese fans invariably have high expectations of their Olympic athletes. International sport has long been used as a vehicle for demonstrating national capabilities and spirit, and a means to generating national pride. During the Cold War, competing blocs used all means foul and fair to demonstrate the superiority of their political and economic systems. In those days a lacklustre medal tally was a matter of national shame. Instrumentally face-saving or not, the narrative that surrounded China’s Rio performance made much of the argument that nations that are confident in their sense of self do not need gold medals to externalise their worth. China’s re-emergence as an economic and world power, and global recognition of its remarkable development story, should rightly be a source of confidence vastly more important than Olympic medals.

If we take this narrative at face value, it would represent a healthy turning point in China’s relationship with sport. In grappling with the failure to meet expectations, the nation began to debate what sporting success actually means in more holistic terms, including sports as a vehicle for pushing individual boundaries, enjoying the thrill of participation and nurturing healthy lifestyles. Such an attitude would be a positive development, reducing the pressure on athletes in the academy system and at the elite level (athletes like Liu Xiang shouldn’t be expected to carry the weight of national pride in addition to the pressures of competition), boosting the attractiveness of participation and healthy lifestyles, which are crucial in a country facing increasing levels of obesity and other public health issues, and putting the focus back on the individual enjoyment of sport.

This message was powerfully delivered by swimmer Fu Yuanhui, in many ways the star of the Rio Olympics not named Phelps, Biles or Bolt. Interviewed on CCTV after a qualifying heat, Fu expressed delight and satisfaction at beating her own personal best. After all the hard training Fu expressed her pleasure at giving it her all and not worrying about her medal chances. Fu’s ebullient interview quickly went viral, with people around the world enjoying her refreshing humility, enthusiasm and pleasure in her sport. Her unfiltered demeanour stood in contrast to both tight-lipped, media-trained professional athletes and the constrained, some say robotic, image of other Chinese athletes. In terms of winning hearts and minds, Fu demonstrated how the power of attraction works best when it is organic and unplanned.

For all this, the Rio Games were not without reminders of the “thin skin” that blogger Han Han described ahead of the Beijing Games in 2008. Coverage of the opening ceremony parade was marred by CCTV cutting away from the Philippine contingent, an immature and undignified gesture prompted by a dispute that a few months later appears to have been resolved. The media and online reaction to swimmer Sun Yang’s spat with the Australian Mack Horton was similarly unedifying.

China will once again welcome the world in 2022, when Beijing and sites in neighbouring Hubei host the Winter Games. China is not a traditional Winter Olympics power (with the honourable exception of speed and figure skating) and medal winning will not be the focus. Instead, I hope it will be an opportunity to demonstrate the confidence of a great nation, manifest in Beijing’s historical gems and the scale and facilities of a 21st Century metropolis, as well as the warmth of the locals and the taste of northern cuisine. Communicating China’s openness and positivity is more important than winning medals. I reserve judgement on whether China’s attitude to its sports teams has really changed or is a reflection of greater confidence, but as Coach Lippi said, “I am optimistic, because I have to be”. Lippi’s first game in charge is a winnable home Qualifier next month against Qatar.