As one of the oldest sports in the world, the origin of athletics, or track and field, can be traced back to Ancient Greece. In 776 BC, the first Olympic game, track and field event was held for the first time. Over time, more and more events such as swimming, cycling, fencing, and so on have been introduced to Olympics. However, if we look closer into every sports, it is fair to say that track and field is the foundation of all kinds of sports. In other words, we can even say that Olympics is built around athletics. Therefore, whenever Olympic Games take place, track and field is definitely one of sports that attract most attention.
There are some significant track and field events in history that influenced China and change the world’s view on this emerging power. Apart from changing China, athletics also affected America greatly throughout its history. However, unlike its rich history, athletics was first used as a tool to demonstrate nation supremacy at the 1960 Olympics when the US national team lost some essential events to the Soviet Union.[footnoteRef:1] During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union made every effort to win as many events as possible to show the dominance in Olympics and also to the world. China, at that time, was still isolated from others and no one else in the world knew the sport culture of it. After Cold war, athletics slipped into the doldrums and lost the popularity due to doping issues.
Until the 2004 Olympics, the Chinses athlete, Liu Xiang broke the Olympic record in 110 meters hurdle and took the world by storm.[footnoteRef:3] His outstanding performance sent a message to the world that China is now able to produce a gold medalist in track and field. Liu Xiang also raised the track and field trend in China and the world, being an athlete role model.[footnoteRef:4] At 2008, Usain Bolt, a young athlete from Jamaica, broke the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4×100 meters relay records in one Olympics. His performance brought a new face to athletics and changed the future of the Olympic Games.
Patrick Nally, the founding father of sports marketing and sports business industry, also coined the phrase” The Usain Bolt Effect” to indicate the commercialization of superstar athletes in the country.[footnoteRef:6] Although the effect seemed to start after the 2008 Olympics, Liu Xiang and his performance were first thought that athletics could be of great economic value. Receiving more than 1 million RMB dollars from various sponsors, his superstar effect boosted the entire economy in China and catalyst the birth of many new track stars.
Until now, athletics is not just about winning the game and become the best athlete in the world. It has also become entangled in politics, economics, and national strength.
Athletics and Cold War
The birth of the word “athletics” is said to be derived from “Athlos” meaning contest in Greek. Also, the Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius” which means faster, higher, stronger and athletics happens to be the sport that strive for these. Since the first modern Olympics Games in 1896, athletics has been the major part of every Summer Olympics. At 2012 Olympics, for example, audience of 20 million watched the final of 100 meters and over 17 million people saw Mo Farah, a British athlete, clinched gold in 10,000 meters.
It might seem like athletics is nothing more than a popular sport around the world, but actually it has been used in other ways since 1960 Olympics at Rome.
This was the first commercially televised game which means its impact on the world is more widespread than ever before. The game took place in the middle of Cold War and the Soviets had just learned from Hitler that Olympics are great sources of propaganda. Every event eventually became a part of the American-Soviet rivalry. Every winning was depicted as proof of supremacy. In the first week of September 1960, an American journal Sports Illustrated showed the confidence of American people and the bright prospects. Events that attracted most attention were the men’s 100 meters, which American had not lost that event since 1928, and men’s high jump, which the journal boldly wrote “the only question is second place”. However, on September 1, John Thomas, said to be the surest gold medal winner, settled for bronze behind two Russians. That day was remembered by America as “the darkest day in United States track and field history”. What was worse, the US team was disqualified for a faulty baton pass in the 4×100 relay and lost the 100 meters to a German athlete. It might seemed to be the darkest time for the entire America, but the election then turned out to be very surprising. John F. Kennedy, the candidate of Democratic Party, used the defeats and disappointments to help him win the election by claiming these as a new birth to the new America.
Apart from the international politics and the election, the 1960 Olympics also influenced the race issues and gender issues in America. Wilma Rudolph, a female African-American sprinter won the gold medals in 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4×100 relay. Her performance brought a new perspective on women’s sports and race issues, showing to the world that women’s competition can fairly change the overall number of medals. By the time the Rome Olympics ended, the world had changed the view on the supremacy of America in Cold War. To counter that atmosphere, the US team tried to win back the position by winning the 100 meters in 1964 and 1968 Olympics, showing that the US had really rebirth from the setbacks at Rome.
Athletics in China
Although the first Chinese athlete at the Olympics Games, Liu Changchun competed in the 100 meters race, the overall strength of athletics in China had been very weak and the performance was not very stable.
From 1984, China’s first return to the Olympics Games as People’s Republic of China, to 2008, the first Olympics Games held by China in Beijing, China’s athletics only captured 5 gold medals accounting for only 2.3% of the total 262 gold medals won in the 7 Olympic Games. Also, in the 24 years, there were only 14 athletes who entered the top 3 in the finals and only 51 athletes entered the top 8.
If we take a closer look at the content of each Olympics, we can see that the strength of athletics on China is weak compared to other countries. In the 24 years, the number of medals in each Olympic Games was between 1 and 4 which didn’t fluctuate much. However, if we see the statistics of the number of athletes who entered the finals, we can see the big difference. The highest number of athletes entered the finals is 12 at 1992 Barcelona Olympics with 4 medals. The lowest number was just 8 years later at 200 Sydney Olympics, with only 3 athletes in the finals and only one medal. From these results, we can see the overall performance of athletes was unstable while the number of medals stayed at a steady number.
During these Olympic Games, the international position of China seemed not to be influenced by the relatively backward level of athletics. In fact, since the role of China in international politics had become more and more important after the Ping-pong Diplomacy, the overall level of athletics had been at a low level without any athletes that could show the world that China is able to compete with others not just in sports but also in international affairs.
However, after Liu Xiang broke the Olympic record which took China and the world by storm, the world had started to notice this nation again. Four years later, China host the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. Although China only won 4 medals in athletics, the total number of medals was 100, ranking second behind the US. It can’t be denied that the game helped China reach a milestone in the exploration of soft power. The Chinese elites considered the huge event as a century old dream of Chinese people. During the game, the world surely saw the best picture of China. As a developing country, China surely gained a lasting reputation and credibility which enabled China to host the IAAF World Championships, a game as important to athletes as Olympics, in Beijing 2015.
At the 2012 London Olympic Games, China athletics team won 9 medals in total with Chen Ding’s gold medal and another Olympic record in 20 kilometers walk. The overall level of athletics in China really increased but still unable to compete with nations like the US, the UK, and even Japan.
Three years later, a Chinese sprinter, Su Bingtian, ran 9.99 seconds in 100 meters in Oregon and became the first Chinese man to run under 10 seconds. At the IAAF World Championships, Su Bingtian along with his other three teammates ran 38.01 seconds and won the silver medal for them and for China. China Daily, a newspaper in China, even proclaimed that the” Fantastic Four” were ready to rewrite the history in the 2016 Rio Olympics. China, nowadays, is able to compete with those nations good at athletics.
Attitude towards Athletics
During Cold War, we can see two giant political power, US and the Soviet Union, competing with each other in every competition and when one of them won, the success would then be depicted as a proof of supremacy. During 1992 to 2000, athletics had been pushed back to the dark ages because of the doping issues and nations had put fewer attention to the medals in athletics events.
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was not only of great importance to China but also the game that changed the world forever. Usain Bolt, a young Jamaican sprinter, broke three Olympic records in one Olympic Games. His outstanding performance put athletics back into the spotlight. Nations also noticed the commercial profit behind superstar athletes. Many public media then coined the term “The Usain Bolt Effect” to illustrate what was about to happen in the near future.
Bolt’s performance had introduced sports marketing into athletics. Governing bodies had decided to invest in individual athlete even though they clearly understood the risks of an athlete being blighted by personal scandals like doping. By using social and traditional media, governing bodies can commercialize their athletes and gain the profit from the reputation of the athlete. In fact, Liu Xiang already received more than one million RMB from various sponsors and media agencies after the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. China, at that time, thought athletics could be of great significance of the GDP while the rest of the world still regarded this as a kind of leisure activity. Thanks to “The Usain Bolt Effect”, athletics had regained its popularity in sports and been proved that there really are economic benefits. In the US, track and field athletes made at least 14 million USD in 2016 and 28 athletes among them made more than a $100,000 each.
Nations changed their view on athletics. To athletes, athletics is just what they love and they want to become better and better through competitions. To nations, it changed from a tool of political demonstration to a sport that few people cared about and finally to a way to increase the GDP, Jamaican economy, for example, was benefited from The Usain Bolt Effect.
Before athletics was used as a tool of politics in 1960, few people knew that this sport would make such a difference in many aspects. Any competition since the darkest day in United States track and field history had been a competition between national images. Unfortunately, after the Cold War, athletics suffered from doping issues and lost its popularity. The world hadn’t put much attention to this sport for over ten years until Liu Xiang grabbed the world’s attention back to athletics by his stunning performance in 2004. Four years later, Usain Bolt saved athletics by his enthusiasm in athletics and his record-breaking performance. The rebirth of athletics not only brought back the attentions but also let economic benefits enter athletics. Nowadays, athletics plays a huge role in every Olympics and nations could earn some profits from winning the events
As for the athletics in China, we could clearly see the difference before and after Liu Xiang’s gold medal. China didn’t realize the importance of athletics when it only focused on the reapplication for membership of international organizations, which made the overall level of athletics relatively backward compared to other nations. After Liu Xiang, China not only exploited the Beijing Olympics as a kind of soft power but also produced a number of great athletes that took China athletics into another level. With the help of athletics, China is now a competitor worth attention in sports and also in economy.
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