By Zhengxu Wang.

The journalists or commentators raising the possibility of doping in the performance of the Chinese swimmers are doing this too late. If they were commenting before the Sydney Olympics (2000), they were right on target. So, may I say they are 12 years late?

I am myself in fact a big critic of the Chinese model of sports-state, which was copied from the Soviet/East Germany one, and now only exists in Cuban, North Korea, and China. For sports purposes, I embrace the US/Europe/Singapore/Hong Kong way, with the state playing a minimum role but sports develop because very good programmes exist in schools, university, and community grassroots. I have made this point many times in op/eds and interviews.

But whatever criticisms one may have for the Chinese model of sports-state, the officials and coaches in that system have learned the hard lesson that doping is NOT to be an option. The scandals in the late 1990s had led to the forceful decision that doping was NOT to be used. And, if some coaches or athletes would still secretly try, they were not going to be tolerated once found out.

Athletes are subject to regular anti-doping checks in the sports system. The officials know they cannot afford another doping scandal.

This issue, for me, was already clear four years ago. When Zige Liu won the first swimming gold for China in the Olympics, people already raised the question, and at that time a NYT piece quite clearly set the record straight for her.

The secret (if it is a secret), is again the Chinese sports state. Since 2000 it had embarked on Project 119 that gave focused efforts to swimming and tracks and field programmes (it was so named because these two areas generate a total of 119 gold medals at the Olympics, and China has never done well in them).

The objective when it was started was clear: the Chinese teams would win golds in swimming and tracks and field by the London Olympics in 2012. In fact, it materialized sooner: Liu Zige won a gold medal in 2008. And Sun Yang and a few other top swimmers have emerged.

For swimming, Project 119 involves very elaborate training programs. Promising athletes were identified early, and in large numbers. They are sent to train in Yunnan (with its high altitude), and overseas. Sun Yang, for example trained (together with his Korean rival) with Australian coaches, while quite a few of them were sent to trained in the UK. Liu Zige trained at University of Bath between 2009 and 2010, for example.

The debate now rampant on China’s internet focus on whether this state-led sports system is still worth having. The challenge here is, whether you want to use concentrated resources to train a very small number (compared to China’s large population) of elite athletes that win Olympics medals, or whether you want to promote more public sports programmes to involve more people in sports.

Many UK or European people certainly dislike the sports-state idea. Above all, without a sports-state, the Spanish still manage to sandwich a World Cup with two Euro Cups. But when the Olympics are on, and people see China leading the gold medal table, they cannot help be uncertain. Maybe we need to have some focused programmes targeting Olympics medals, after all?

So, doping is the wrong question to ask, whilst how do we want to run our sports programmes is the right one.

Dr Zhengxu Wang is  Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute and Lecturer at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. Wang Zhengxu has got this spot-on. It’s the system that produces such swimming results. Also, in a population of over 1.3 billion, it is not surprising that China finds a number of people with terrific athletic ability, who are then honed within the system. But the system itself is also a reflection of the political and social environment.

  2. Liu Zige didn’t do well this time. Let’s hope that the 16-year-old Ye will perform better in the next two, or at least one, Olympics.

  3. I’m delighted to hear the voices, dismayed though underground; and am long to see more INTO it, believing that a stone is to be found whilst “Crossing rivers stone by stone” in the deep waters.

  4. Obviously the Olympic Games is not a pure sports event, but a political one for China (although China might not be alone), and the number of the medals is what the government needs to strengthen its legitimacy, due to a century long history of China being weak and colonized. It then makes the Olympic Games like a competition between a SOE and a private enterprise, which goes against the fairness of the sports. However, we won’t see too much internal dynamics to change this situation in short term, the hope lies in the IOC, who could probably consider changing the rule of games to make it played on a fairer ground.

  5. What has happened to the blog suggested that colonial mindset of BBC is evident in the way commentators there deal with names of chinese olympists? It can’t be there is censorship here?

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