When the Olympic torch is lit on Friday in Rio de Janeiro, there will be 416 Chinese athletes in attendance, the largest contingent the country has ever sent abroad. It’s a hopeful symbol amid an unprecedented whirlwind of doping and corruption charges. And it seems like a pretty apt metaphor.
For three decades, China has embraced the Olympics as a proxy for national greatness. Winning more medals—and China wins a lot of them—seemed to equate with its rising status in the world. It even seemed to boost racial self-confidence: In 2004, hurdler Liu Xiang told the press that his unexpected gold medal proved that “athletes with yellow skin can run as fast as those with black and white skins.”
Yet as China’s political and financial investment in the Olympics has grown, the games themselves have only become more tarnished: Revelations of widespread cheating by Russia at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi are just the latest to undermine the integrity of competition that the Chinese government so esteems.
China has had its share of doping problems, of course. In the early 1990s, its women’s distance-running team set a series of astonishing world records, despite having no history of success in the sport. Their coach credited traditional elixirs made from worms and turtles, but the truth was likely more banal: Two of the runners have since claimed that they were forced to dope.
More recently, China’s record-setting swimming performances at the 2012 London Olympics caused suspicion among competitors, coaches and commentators. This spring, a whistle-blower revealed that authorities had covered up positive tests by Chinese swimmers, and were allowing a coach banned for doping to work with athletes in Tianjin. In April, the World Anti-Doping Authority suspended China’s drug-testing lab.
For China, these aren’t just embarrassments; they’re political problems. Allegations of doping at the 2008 Beijing games threaten to stain an event that the government has extolled as a key moment in China’s international emergence. Cheating among Olympians is especially thorny when the government is trying to clean up corruption everywhere else—from its civil service to its much-maligned soccer leagues.
And that’s actually a reason for hope. In recent years, China has gained a lot of influence over the Olympics. Last summer, Beijing won the rights to the 2022 Winter Games based largely on its ability to pay for them—even though the city is mostly snowless and has no tradition of winter sports. Chinese corporate sponsorship has likewise become an increasingly important way to fund the games. And the value of Chinese broadcast rights is growing rapidly as the country’s huge population starts to tune in.
All of which means that China isn’t powerless to stop the erosion of the Olympic brand. It could start at home, by finally making a public push to stamp out cheating. For one thing, it could require that all athletes in its state system be covered by “biological passports” that track long-term physiological changes in the blood. Such technology should be adopted universally, but China—perhaps more than any other country—has the ability to lead the way.
That would align with President Xi Jinping’s push to improve public morality via his anti-corruption crackdown, and would be a statement of confidence in an athletic program that easily ranks among the world’s best, even without drugs. It would also be a powerful gesture if China wants to push the International Olympic Committee to make further reforms to clean up the games.
That may sound unlikely. But few countries have China’s attachment to sport as a symbol of national greatness. If nothing else, standing up against cheating would be a way to enhance its status in the world—regardless of how many athletes it sends to the medal platform. Bloomberg