Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008

Article excerpt

Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008, by Xu Guoqi (Harvard University Press, 2008).

In advance of most recent Summer Olympics, the public can be assured of seeing a number of offerings from the publishing industry on a variety of aspects of the impending Games. Olympic Dreams is no exception as it is one of several books about China and sport that appeared shortly before the start of the 2008 Games. The author, Xu Guoqi, is one of a small but growing number of recent Harvard-trained historians of 20th century international history who have begun to focus upon sport (Barbara Keys is another whose work has been reviewed in recent volumes of Olympika). What sets Olympic Dreams apart from other volumes on China and sport is how Xu situates his discussion within the broader context of international relations and diplomacy in the 20th century. Using this framework Xu shows how various Chinese leaders from different periods (the end of Qing dynasty; the early republic, nationalist China, civil war, Maoist period, post-Mao reforms) recognized and used sport for national and international purposes.

Xu organizes the volume in a roughly chronological fashion, but with three main case studies that overlap certain periods. After spending three chapters providing an overview of China's national and international uses of sport from the end of the Qing Dynasty to roughly the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Xu then examines in detail three significant cases wherein China's relations with the international community in the 20th century were influenced by sporting events and organizations. These cases are: 1) the struggles between China and Taiwan for the official recognition by the International Olympic Committee that would allow them to participate in the Olympic Games; 2) China and the United States' diplomatic rapprochement via the now famous 'ping pong diplomacy' of the early 1970s; and 3) an examination of the way that the Montreal Olympics played a significant role in setting the stage for the People's Republic of China to re-enter the Olympic Games. With these cases complete, Xu returns to the broader picture with a look at the changes in China's use of international sport in the decades following Mao's death and how these led eventually to China's pursuit of becoming the host to the Summer Olympic Games.

Using an impressive array of archival evidence, Xu presents compelling arguments that successive political leaders of China have embraced the idea that adopting and using Western sports were ways to strengthen and develop the nation both nationally and internationally. Indeed, he devotes chapters to each. Xu shows that the political leaders' and intellectuals' initial goal in the early decades of the twentieth century was to strengthen China's citizens so that they would be more ready to be a part of the military, a necessary condition to defend the nation. However, this quickly expanded to include the use of sport to showcase the nation to the international community and, in the case of China's lone athlete, Liu Changchun, at the Los Angeles Games in 1932, to prevent the Japanese from attempting to use him to legitimize their occupation of Manchukuo. In the decades immediately following the establishment of the People's Republic of China, participating in elite international sport was seen most importantly as a way to show friendship between China and other nations (even if this meant that athletes were sometimes instructed to lose discretely at sporting events). In contrast, in more recent years, victories at international sports events in general and the Olympic Games in particular have been seen to be a way of proving that China is important and of growing significance in the international community. …