April 28, 2008

Show me the money!

The Washington Post has a good article on athletics and capitalism in China. In the article, writer Maureen Fan discusses how money is beginning to influence sports in China, and how capitalism is spawning a culture of individualism. I think this is a great thing. Not only will China be more likely to retain good talent, but money will also lead to innovation and motivation in sports. Sports pushes the level of human achievement for everyone who watches and participates, and it's a noble goal that both societies and capitalism should embrace.

The article also brings up an interesting point about the capitalist aspects of sports and popularity:

Not all athletes can do as well as Xu. As in the United States, salaries correspond to the popularity of a sport. Badminton and table tennis players, for example, attract more sponsors than do wrestlers, who can't fill stands with spectators. Sponsors didn't chase after China's tennis team until two female stars brought home gold medals from the Athens Olympics in 2004 and became instant national heroes.

This illustrates how money and popularity is of critical importance to the success of any international sports program. There is a reason why the U.S. does well in sports like basketball and the Koreans do well in archery; it has less to do with natural talent and more to do with what the culture values and what people and governments are willing to support. People do well when other people pay them to do well. One might be impressed with the Russian performance in chess, for example, until one realizes that Russian kids take chess as a subject in school, and that the government pays for the competitors' training and living expenses while they prepare for international competition. If chess players in America had that, our chess players would be doing just as well.

The article also mentions a possible downside associated with commercialism:

Liu, the hurdler, has perhaps been the greatest beneficiary of the new approach. He has enjoyed the adoration of Chinese fans since setting a world record at the Athens Games. Now he's sponsored by Nike, Coca-Cola, Visa and a slew of Chinese brands, including a real estate company and a cigarette-maker.

Sponsorships have become such a focus for Liu and other top Olympic contenders that sports authorities in China have started to worry that the athletes will be distracted from their training. Late last year, authorities instructed elite competitors to cut back on their commercial activities.

But I tend to take the positive view of this situation. While it may be possible to go overboard with money and its related activities, most likely the Chinese, like people in other industrialized countries, will adjust. Tiger Woods, for example, has been endorsing everything under the sun from cars to LASIK eye surgery, and his performance hasn't suffered at all.

It will be interesting to see what this new Chinese focus on sports capitalism brings. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that the positives far surpass the negatives. More money and individualism will bring better performance. And that's good for everyone.

(Photo of Guo Jingjing from Reuters.)

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