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Medals are not the only measure of success in sports

Chinese tennis icon Li Na Photo: Getty Images

Before and during big international sport competitions, fans and functionaries have high expectations from their teams. Throughout the tournament, they eagerly hope their athletes will win most gold medals for their country and earn respect from international audiences.

While it is normal to hope for good results, what is meant by a good result is a relative question. For instance, for Jamaica, a country without snow, it was a major success when their national bobsleigh team qualified for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. For others, such as winter sports powerhouse Germany, it can be a big disappointment if their bob team wins anything but a gold medal.

Recently, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China (CCDI) investigated and discovered malpractices and violations of rules within the General Administration of Sport of China (GASC), which prompted a rethink by the GASC on their methods.   

The GASC reportedly admitted that the “perverted obsession with gold medals” was one of the reasons for the violation of national laws and disruption of China’s sports development. As the first step in the aftermath of this investigation, the GASC decided it would no longer use medal rankings to measure success in sports.

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China won 51 gold medals and topped the medals tally. It was also seen as a China’s arrival at the top level of international sports. But many were asking: what next?

A change of mentality could already be noticed during the 2nd Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing last year. Participants and outside observers felt that the atmosphere was more relaxed and friendly.

The absolute emphasis on success puts athletes under high pressure. But apart from this, in its report, the GASC also made clear that this mentality can create unwanted side effects like doping or corruption which, when revealed, not only hurts the public image, but also runs counter to sportsmanship.

Successful athletes who don’t have to face this systemic pressure from their sports associations and achieve good results based on their own passion and ambition, are even more respected by the broader audience. A prime example is former tennis star Li Na, whose passionate and somehow independent character helped to boost her popularity. She became the worldwide icon of Chinese tennis.

Rewards are widely seen as a measure of a country’s performance. But it is not the medals alone that earn the athletes respect or make them proud, it is also the way the medals are won. Sometimes, even if an athlete is not successful in winning a competition, people view him positively because of the way he participated in the competition.

Look for example at the heartbreaking performance of Liu Xiang at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He didn’t win anything except the hearts of the global audience. And this is what counts. As the saying goes: the journey is its own reward. This is definitely true for athletes.

People should not focus too much of rewards, but more on how the athletes perform in a competition. In the end, it is not medals that represent the country, but the athletes who compete. Therefore, it is a right decision to shift the focus away from medal rankings.

The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer.

(Opinions expressed in this article don't represent those of the

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