Raising the nation's game

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China's sports minister says more needs to be done in the fight against corruption and the implementation of sports industry reforms as the country redoubles its efforts to build a fully fledged global sporting power by 2035.

The Chinese men's soccer and basketball teams have struggled on the international stage in recent years, with the sports' national governing bodies now redoubling their efforts to improve grassroots and youth development, as well as reinvigorating professional leagues and infrastructure. XINHUA

As Chinese athletes shape up for the Paris Olympics following a successful 2023, sports chief Gao Zhidan highlighted remaining shortcomings that need to be addressed by sports governing bodies and relevant departments — namely, the decline of the men's national 'big-ball' programs, corruption involving top officials, and a lack of diversification in the sports industry.

Only by developing balanced prowess at both the elite and grassroots levels can China call itself a true global sporting power, according to Gao, director of the General Administration of Sport of China.

"The sports sector in our country enjoyed a progressive year in 2023, marked by the successful hosting of the Hangzhou Asian Games and Chengdu Summer Universiade," Gao, a deputy to the 14th National People's Congress, said on Monday after the closing of the top legislature's annual meeting at the Great Hall of the People.

"Yet, with 11 years to go before the deadline, we still have a lot of catching up to do. We need to stay coolheaded, despite all the progress we've made, and tackle long-term issues hampering the development of the sports sector," Gao added.

Slumping squads

The underachieving men's soccer and basketball national programs have at times overshadowed the huge strides made by Chinese athletes elsewhere, much to the chagrin of fans.

After missing out on qualification for the FIFA World Cup for the fifth time in a row at Qatar 2022, the Chinese men's soccer team sank to a new low when it crashed out of the Asian Cup in January with a scoreless, worst-ever 18th-place finish at the continental event.

The humiliating campaign was a further blow to the nation's soccer revival project, which continues to struggle on all fronts. Poor results on the pitch have been mirrored by corruption off it, with several former Chinese Football Association officials now paying for their crimes behind bars.

The rampant abuse of power, match-fixing and bribery, revealed by China's central anti-graft authority and involving former CFA president Chen Xuyuan, the association's former Party chief Du Zhaocai and former national team coach Li Tie, should be blamed for the sport's stagnant development and poor management, said Gao.

"Systematic corruption has wreaked havoc with the soccer sector, while the international performances of our 'big-ball' squads have been on a continual decline over the past few years, failing to meet the expectations of the central government and ordinary fans," he added.

To further deter and tackle disciplinary violations, Liu Guoyong, a deputy director of the GASC, suggested during the 14th NPC's annual meeting last week that match-fixing, including manipulation of results, scores and statistics, should be criminalized with amendments to laws.

"We've had criminal laws targeting bribery and gambling in sports, yet we lack strong legal action against match-fixing specifically, resulting in manipulation of results not just in soccer and basketball, but also in billiards, table tennis, badminton and even esports," said Liu, also a deputy to the top legislature.

"Stronger protection is needed to defend clean sports and the integrity of fair players."

China's men's basketball team, once the pride of the nation after reaching the Olympic quarterfinals twice, is also in the doldrums. A disappointing campaign at the 2023 FIBA World Cup saw the squad fail to qualify for this summer's Paris Olympics, having also missed out on the Tokyo Games.

Two straight losses to the Philippines, first at the World Cup last August and two months later in the semifinals of the home Asiad, were followed by a first defeat to Japan in 88 years in an Asian Cup qualifier last month, leaving fans furious.

Former NBA All-Star and national team icon Yao Ming, who is now president of the Chinese Basketball Association, is under huge pressure, with the declining competitiveness of the domestic league and stagnant domestic talent development under the spotlight.

"Reforms on all fronts are needed and we are planning to improve the quality of the national team's training programs as well as the CBA league's operations," Yao, also a deputy to the 14th NPC, told China Central Television last week.

"At the grassroots level, we are not short of kids loving and playing the game. We need to restructure our competitions and coaching systems to better identify and develop young talent," said Yao, who led Team China to a best-ever eighth-place finish at Beijing 2008.

Tapping potential

Despite regularly topping the medal tables at major international events, China remains a novice in the development of the sports industry, with untapped potential in event ticketing, sports equipment manufacturing, fitness services, and outdoor and leisure sports, according to experts.

To stimulate greater consumption, the government should work closely with the private sector to provide more accessible and affordable sports venues, exercise facilities and fitness guidance for the public to enjoy sports whenever and wherever they want, said Bao Mingxiao, director of the China Sports Policy Research Institute at Beijing Sport University.

"We are not fully developed yet as a strong sporting nation in the sense that our public service for sports activities remains insufficient," said Bao, a member of the country's top political advisory body.

More grassroots events, such as city marathons and amateur skiing competitions, could be introduced as local tourist attractions across the country to draw more consumers during public holidays, Bao added.

The past Chinese New Year holiday has witnessed an explosion in demand for winter sports and related leisure activities, with record numbers of visitors and revenue reported across major destinations in North China.

According to the GASC, 26 national-level ski resorts reported year-on-year revenue increases of 50 percent during Spring Festival, while the total consumption in sports activities and tourism in the host cities of last year's major events — Chengdu (Universiade), Hangzhou (Asian Games), Nanning (National Youth Games) and Hulunbuir (National Winter Games) exceeded 130 billion yuan ($18 billion).

Still, the numbers do not reflect the true market value as the public interest in emerging pastime choices, such as snowboarding, hiking, surfing and paddleboarding, is still on the rise.

"The development of the sports industry is shifting from traditional manufacturing of sporting goods to a variety of new businesses in the service sector. So, we are heading in the right direction," said Gao.

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