China's Athletics System Seeks to Learn from American Sports Culture

Chad Lewis, Rafael Stone, and Carrie Xu discussed the role that sports play in the U.S.–China relationship and about how learning Mandarin and building partnerships between the two countries has helped them both personally and professionally. Dan Washburn moderated the discussion. (1hr., 11 min.)

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China took home a record 51 gold medals, topping the United States for the first time ever. The record haul was the result of a Soviet-style development system that puts young athletes who show potential through rigorous sports training academies that have a tunnel-vision focus on athletic achievement. These “medal factories,” as they have often been referred to, come with a significant cost — many of the students do not possess the skills to make a living if they fail to achieve athletic greatness.

Today, however, China is starting to look past a lust for gold medals and consider a sports development system that takes a more rounded approach. “Now the government sees that sports can actually be an important part of the GDP, and they want to make it part of everyone's everyday life,” said Carrie Xu, international senior manager of the Pac-12 — a collegiate athletic conference in the western United States. “So with the U.S. being the country with the most advanced sports industry in the world, China thinks it can learn a lot.”

Speaking at Asia Society’s 2017 National Chinese Language Conference in Houston last month, Xu said that university sports in China still have a relatively low skill level and very little public interest compared to the United States. But in recent years, hundreds of administrators and coaches from Chinese universities have visited Pac-12 schools to learn about how they combine athletics and academics to develop more well-rounded student-athletes and make sports an integral part of a university’s culture.

Xu recalled an occasion when more than 100 Chinese coaches visited the University of Utah in Salt Lake City for a training program and went to a football game with tens of thousands of cheering fans. “They were amazed,” Xu said. “Sports are an important part of U.S. culture, and the popularity of college sports is a very important part of sports culture. … They were determined to go back to China and make a lot of changes there.”

In the above video, Xu discusses how basketball star Yao Ming has been an advocate for China to learn from the United States' National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and how the nearly 330,000 Chinese students studying in American universities are becoming ambassadors for American college sports culture. She appeared on a panel with Chad Lewis, a Mandarin-speaking former NFL player, and Rafael Stone, general counsel of the Houston Rockets, to discuss the role of sports in the U.S.-China relationship.

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.