China's Olympic spirit thrives after 20 years

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Ding Xia (C) and Yuan Xinyue (R) of China block the net during the Preliminary Round match between China and Italy at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball Nations League in Rimini, Italy, June 14, 2021. (Xinhua)

With 10 days to go before the 32nd Olympic Games open in Tokyo, China's elite athletes are making their final pushes toward the delayed sporting extravaganza.

Exactly 20 years ago, hundreds of millions of Chinese reveled in Beijing's successful bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, the first to be held in the world's most populous nation and the first in an Asian city since Seoul staged the 1988 Games.

As much of the world is still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Olympic flame symbolizes a light at the end of the dark tunnel for the Olympic family and the world as a whole.

For the Chinese, the Olympics represented a century-old dream which reached its climax 13 years ago when they staged a Games described as "truly exceptional" by then-International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge.

But China's Olympic dream didn't stop in 2008. The country continues to contribute to the Olympic movement.


In 1908, "Tianjin Youth" magazine raised three questions: "When could China send an athlete to participate in an Olympic Games?" "When could China send a delegation to an Olympic Games?" "When could China host an Olympic Games?" For most of the last century, Chinese people tried hard to give answers to those three questions.

The first two questions found their answers not very long afterwards while the final puzzle was only solved almost a century after it was made.

At the Amsterdam Olympic Games in 1928, Song Ruhai, an observer from the All-China Sports Promotion Association, was the first Chinese to hear the word "Olympiad". He thus transliterated the word as "Wo Neng Bi Ya," which means "I can compete" in English.

Four years later, Liu Changchun was the first Chinese to make "Wo Neng Bi Ya" a reality. After 28 days of travel, the student from Northeast University arrived at the Los Angeles Games but found himself eliminated in the men's 100m preliminaries. In 1936, some 140 Chinese athletes participated in the Berlin Games.

In 1952, China dispatched a 40-member delegation to the Finnish capital of Helsinki to participate in the 15th Olympic Summer Games, marking the first time that the national flag of the People's Republic of China was raised at the quadrennial sports event.

It was not until the year 1984 that China made a significant impression at an Olympic Games, 52 years after Liu Changchun first took part. Chinese sharpshooter Xu Haifeng won the country's first-ever Olympic gold medal, and the Chinese team grabbed a total of 15 golds.

However, the search for an answer to the third question was painstaking. China failed in its first Olympic bid in 1993 and came back for its second try eight years later.

On July 13, 2001, then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch announced during IOC's 112th session in Moscow that Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games, igniting the Chinese people's enormous enthusiasm for the Olympic movement and pride in their motherland's achievements.

"In the old days, Chinese people dared not imagine that this country could host the Olympic Games. It has become a reality along with the escalation of our country's status in the international community and our economic development. Beijing's success is a grand victory of our Party, our country and our people," said renowned Chinese basketball coach Mou Zuoyun after Beijing won the bid.

Mou had wanted to watch the Beijing Olympics, but he passed away in 2007.

He said that Beijing's bidding success could not be disconnected from outstanding achievements that China had made in terms of economy, culture, sports and other areas since the country's reform and opening up.

Late IOC member and vice president He Zhenliang was best known for his role in helping Beijing land the 2008 Olympics.

He could not hold back tears when receiving congratulations from other IOC members and his friends.

"I have no pity in life after this," he said, also attributing Beijing's bidding success to the overall development of the city and the country.

"Those members who supported us become more staunch, while those who were against Beijing's bid changed their minds."


13 years later, nobody can ignore the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to the Olympic movement, especially with the Tokyo Olympics being postponed by one year.

However, like their counterparts in other places, Chinese athletes showcased an unswerving faith in striving for Olympic glory.

Two-time Olympic taekwondo gold medalist Wu Jingyu turns 34 on Tuesday. Starting her Olympic campaign by pocketing gold on home soil in 2008 and defending it in London four years later, she is ready to make a record fourth Olympic appearance as a female taekwondo athlete.

"I just knew that I had won the gold medal but had no idea of why I won it. When everyone cheers for you, you just have a sense of pride," Wu recalled.

Wu retired after finishing seventh at the Rio Olympic Games, and gave birth to her daughter in 2017.

After deciding to return to competition, Wu faced a race against time to rack up enough ranking points to qualify for Tokyo. Despite enormous challenges, she managed to secure her spot after finishing runner-up in the women's under-49kg category final at last year's World Taekwondo Grand Prix Final in Moscow.

"For a moment during that period, I even doubted whether I used to be a taekwondo athlete or not," Wu recalled.

But her faith in herself never faded. "No one knows what will happen next, but I always want to challenge the top podium."

Like Wu, veterans persevere in chasing their dreams out of pure love for the sport, while some others are set to debut at an Olympics that will be quite different from previous editions.

Scooping 28 out of 32 gold medals on offer since 1988, China is undoubtedly a powerhouse in table tennis. Anything less than a clean sweep of all available Olympic gold medals would be deemed a failure.

"That's a weight off my mind," said women's singles world No. 1 Chen Meng after being named in China's Olympic table tennis roster.

The Chinese team competed and trained overseas amid the initial COVID-19 outbreak early in 2020.

"We took care of and helped each other this year, and this united group has produced an excellent Chinese team," commented Qin Zhijian, secretary-general of the Chinese Table Tennis Association (CTTA).

In search of another title sweep, the team has finished its behind-closed-doors training in east China's city of Weihai.

"We have the ability and confidence in contending for all five golds, but there are challenges and risks as well, especially considering the pace and manner of preparation is quite different during the COVID-19 pandemic," noted CTTA president and sporting legend Liu Guoliang.


Less than half a year after the Tokyo Olympic Games draws to a close, the world's attention will shift to Beijing, the first city to host both Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

In 2003, Li Jiulin was appointed chief engineer of the construction of the Beijing National Stadium the "Bird's Nest" for the 2008 Olympics at the age of 35.

"At that time, no one in China had the experience to deal with such complicated structural steel construction. None of the foreign experts believed that we could finish the job by ourselves," he recalled.

To solve endless problems, Li and his colleagues completed 13,520 construction drawings based on 150 designs and eventually built the Bird's Nest, the flagship venue of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

After Beijing won the bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Li was tasked with being the chief engineer of the National Speed Skating Oval, known locally as the "Ice Ribbon," due to its distinctive facade.

As the only newly-built venue for ice events in the Beijing competition zone, the "Ice Ribbon" has an ice surface of around 12,000 square meters and can seat 12,000 spectators, making it the largest speed skating venue in Asia.

Except the "Ice Ribbon", China has made efforts to repurpose existing venues from when it hosted the Summer Olympics as 11 venues from Beijing 2008 have been renovated and upgraded for the 2022 Games.

The National Aquatics Center, also known as the "Water Cube," hosted aquatic events during the Beijing Olympic Games and will stage the curling events for Beijing 2022. The National Indoor Stadium will be used for ice hockey, and the "Bird's Nest" is the planned venue for the opening and closing ceremonies.

IOC President Thomas Bach has lavished praise on the Beijing 2022 strategies. "Beijing is making the best out of this because the organizing committee there is using the great legacy of Beijing 2008 for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022," he said.

On May 15, 2020, Beijing 2022 organizers released a sustainability plan that features three key themes: positive environmental impact, a new development for the region and better life for the people. They are supported by 12 sustainable development actions, under which there are 37 critical tasks and 119 specific measures.

"It (sustainability plan) is among the most developed in the history of the Olympic Games," said chairman of IOC Coordination Committee for Beijing 2022 Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr.

The BOCOG's Legacy Report released on June 23 outlines the pre-Games legacies achieved by Beijing 2022 in 13 areas, including the popularization and development of winter sports, urban transformation and upgrade, and regional transformation contributions to poverty alleviation.

Beijing 2022 will be held at a monumental moment, as China has realized its goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects.

According to the Legacy Report, a record 224 million Chinese people participated in ski and skating activities during the 2018/19 winter season, approaching the country's objective of involving 300 million Chinese people in winter sports.

In terms of urban upgrades and post-games sustainability, BOCOG has renovated and upgraded six venues from Beijing 2008 Games venue legacies to accommodate winter sports, and all permanent venues have sporting and social legacy plans for post-Games usage.

Over one million people at home and abroad have applied to volunteer during the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games, further evidence of the legacy and spirit of volunteerism stemming from the 2008 Olympic Games.

China has built an increasingly closer connection with the Olympic movement over the last 20 years and is set to play an ever more prominent role going forward. 

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