China’s Rising Influence in International Sports Organizations

Wang Nan, elected as a council member at the 52nd International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) congress in Doha (source: Chinese Athletics Association)

On September 25th, Chinese Athletics Association (CAA) Vice Director Wang Nan was elected a council member at the 52nd International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) congress in Doha. Although she is the first Asian woman for this position, she is not the first Chinese to occupy a key role in international sports organizations.

In 2016, Yang Yang, the first Chinese Winter Olympic champion, was elected as the first female council member of the International Skating Union (ISU) in its history. Different from many Chinese athletes, Yang Yang recognized the importance of having a voice and began playing a role in international organizations even before her retirement. Back in 1999, Yang became a member of the Athletes Committee, ISU. Her involvement in international sports issues has accelerated and deepened after her retirement. In 2010, she was elected as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), becoming mainland China’s fourth IOC member and first athlete IOC member. This year, she became the only nominee for Vice President of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), sixteen years after being elected as a member of Athlete Committee at WADA.

Jizhong Wei, the former Vice President of the International Volleyball Federation, once said, “To have more people working in related international organizations will empower Chinese sports and lift China’s international sports profile.” Wang Nan and Yang Yang’s existence reflects China’s awakening and as the country starts to seize more “power of discourse” in the sports field. In recent years, “power of discourse” has become a popular term in the discussion of Chinese sports that has been repeatedly underscored mainly due to the frequent refereeing controversies that China has faced in past years. Impacted by traditional culture and limited by language capabilities, Chinese athletes preferred to make a self-criticism instead of questioning referees’ decisions. However, controversial referees’ decisions are never far away from Chinese athletes.

Seven years ago, He Kexin and Chen Yibing performed two perfect routines in women’s uneven bars and men’s rings but only received two silvers, which raised a lot of anger online in China, since many people believed their scores were unfair and their gold medals were stolen. Things did not become better four years later. In Rio 2016, several Chinese gymnasts expressed their dissatisfaction about their scores after the games. “I thought I deserved a medal at least” became the most common responses after the event. Chinese people’s anger rose to its zenith in Pyeongchang for several controversial penalties China received in short track speed skating.

Under this condition, people started to inquire who can stand up for fair competition so athletes’ efforts can be paid off. Regarding this concern, Luo Chaoyi, the director of the gymnastics management center, expressed his opinion during an interview with Xinhua News Agency. He believed that referees did not lower scores of Chinese athletes deliberately, instead saying that China did not fully understand new rules and thereby the routines did not fulfill referees’ preferences. In his eyes, the purpose of increasing the power of course is to be up to date on the newest reforms and have a larger say in rule-making.

This opinion aligns with the words of Yu Zaiqing, Vice President of IOC. He said, “I do not think referees’ decisions are related to power of course. Certainly, we have to fight for more power of course. In order to reach this goal, we need to have people who can impact the rule-making process.” From this perspective, Japan sets an iconic example for China. Hiroyuki Tomita, the former Olympic champion, entered the technical committee of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) after retirement, which strengthened the leading position of Japanese men’s gymnastics. In his term, he made many contributions, including introducing Japanese scoring standards, so the advantages of Japanese athletes can be better reflected in the new scoring system. At the same time, he brought a lot of first-hand information from his work at the FIG to guide the training of the Japanese team. In 2015, Japan launched a training manual based on Hiroyuki’s suggestions. Following Hiroyuki’s influence, Japan has been expanding its power in gymnastics continuously. Japanese gymnastics is known for its standardization of movements, and Japanese people are now increasing the focus of standardization in the judging system. Since January 2017, Watanabe Morinari, a Japanese businessman, has been serving as president of the FIG. In his declaration of candidacy, he proposed a plan to collaborate with Fujitsu to launch a judging support system with artificial intelligence and 3D sensors. His plan is set to become a reality. The Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, from 4 to 13 October, will be the first competition to use this system.

Certainly, Wang Nan and Yang Yang’s success is exciting. However, Chinese presence in international sports organizations is still rather scarce. It is shocking that the number of Chinese who are working for international sports organizations has decreased compared to ten years ago. Restricted to the management system, China usually does not dispatch its own officials to run for the presidency of international sports federations, but supports other candidates as China’s “agents”. However, if China wants to break through the glass ceiling for more administrative power, having more Chinese people in federations becomes necessary. In Japan, many retired athletes choose to receive a college education and land a position in international sports organizations through related sponsorships. China is also exploring its approach of cultivating talents. During the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference last year, Yang Yang submitted a proposal to train talents working for international sports organizations and encourage retired athletes to take management roles in federations.

Xi Jinping, President of China, underscored more than once that the dream of being a world sports power is tightly connected with the Chinese dream. Obviously, China has shown its ambition in the sports field through significant investment into sports-related industries, through occupying a top position in the medal table, and through hosting an incomparable Olympics. However, if China wants to transition from a major sports country to a world sports power, it is essential that China has more talent working in different international organizations to push for China to have a louder voice, thus impacting the whole rule-making process.

China is on a right track, but it needs to do more and faster.