Bull in China
Why is China so successful at the Olympics?

This topic has been under much discussion recently, and I answered this question on Quora.com, which I add here, albeit slightly edited.

I identify the following factors as being behind China’s success at the Olympics. Neither one alone is enough. Their dominance is a marriage of all of them:

1. Talent pool. With a population of 1.3 billion you have a pretty good chance of finding a few hundred that are world-class athletes. And you can afford to be really picky. At the end of the day it all boils down to ability, and China has more people with the latent talent that they can find and develop. And they do, on a scale like no other country. China’s National Games have the same number of competitors as the Olympics. Only 4% of them make the Olympic team.
2. Large delegation. China sends more athletes than most countries. A country can’t win 100 medals if they only send 12 competitors. Quite simply, China can win more because there are more people to do the winning.

3. Playing the percentages. Related to point 2. China enters at least one athlete into almost every event, and often several, increasing the chances of getting their hands on the medals. You have to be in it to win it after all, and China makes sure it’s in everything.

4. Diversity. Related to points 2 and 3. China no longer focuses on just a few sports like some countries do. They have their strengths that get the lions share of money and resources – diving, table tennis, gymnastics, badminton, shooting – but they don’t ignore their weaknesses now. They have made huge improvements in things they have been traditionally weaker at like rowing, sailing and swimming.
5. High-yield events. China is good at at least one sport for which a lot of medals can be won: gymnastics (18 sets of medals). Besides the team and individual all-around events every apparatus has an individual event so the same athletes can double, or even treble, up. A single talented gymnast can win more than a group of handball, football or basketball players put together. By comparison a track runner usually specializes in one event, maybe two, so you need to field a large athletics team to be in with a shot at more athletics medals. Badminton, Diving, Weighlifting and Table Tennis- other Chinese strengths - also offer multiple medals, and China dominates in these sports.

6.Sports academies. Kids with little academic aptitude and/or strong athletic potential attend dedicated sports schools, where they train in their chosen field almost every day. They are basically full-time athletes from childhood. Not many western athletes have the luxury of skipping out on their maths homework to practice sports. Chinese kids hit their 10,000 hours pretty early.

7. Funding/subsidies. Chinese athletes don’t work, unless you count training all day every day as their job. They receive government handouts to do that. Many western athletes have to fit their training in and around their normal lives, such as getting up at 5am to swim before college classes or going running after work in the evening. China’s system is similar to the Soviet one of state-funded, full-time amateurs.

8. Competitive culture. Make no mistake, life in China can be pretty cutthroat at times. Children are raised to always fight to be first. Heck, even getting that one free seat on the bus is a contest. This country doesn’t breed losers. Or rather, it doesn’t acknowledge them.

9. Short man syndrome. The Chinese government, and many of the people, really do believe the world is against them and that they have something to prove. This motivates them to show the rest of the world they are just as awesome as they are. Curiously, Mao Ze Dong believed more in the friendship aspect of the Olympics. The current government sees it as “us against them”.
10. New-found assertiveness. Related to point 9. For a long time China was bullied by foreign powers and was the “sick man of Asia”. The Party does still get criticized a lot today, even if they tend to exaggerate it. Sports are one field in which they can genuinely compete and show the world they are here and are no longer weak. This was why in 2001 they launched a program with the specific intention of winning medals and competing with the big boys (read: USA and Russia).
11. They take it really seriously. Winning at the Olympics is a big deal for Chinese people. While every country likes success at the Olympics, few value it as highly as the Chinese. It’s a major source of national pride in China. (I wonder if they know that and if that belittles their achievements in any way? There’s no fun in winning if the others don’t care as much after all.)
12. Training methods. China has been traditionally strong in sports that can be trained for with repetition. They are less successful in sports that rely more on improvisation and team work. They can commit dive and gymnastic routines to muscle memory, which suits their style of learning. Chinese kids are drilled in everything. Why should sports training be different?  That training is very strict and disciplined. Coaches put their athletes through the ringer.


13. Foreign assistance. For certain sports that western nations have been historically strong at China hires western coaches to train them. You’ll find that Water Polo, Basketball and Swimming athletes get their advice from foreigners, who are more aware of modern sports science. So far only swimming has seen a return on this investment, in terms of medals anyway, but they have improved in other areas.
14. Tactical funding. China has long had a strategy of recruiting athletes to sports it believes it has a realistic chance of winning. In terms of resource allocation they partly ignore the glamour events (e.g. athletics) in favour of less-popular ones (e.g. shooting), although I think this is changing (e.g. swimming, see points 4 and 13).


15. Fear of reprisal. Any athlete that fails faces imprisonment, torture and sometimes execution by the government upon their return.*

*okay, I might have made that up
One final point worth bearing in mind - related to point 1 - is that China actually isn’t all that successful really, if we compare it to other countries that have fewer resources and make less of an effort to be number one. Given what they put into their Olympics training they ought to be winning more. In 2009 there were 10,991 elite competitors at the National Games. There are 380 of them at the Olympics. That’s a lot of waste. Roughly 96% of Chinese athletes are “failures”, something they prefer not to mention, but the real story is that for every medallist there are hundreds on the scrap heap. I can’t imagine any other country has such a high number of rejects. It’s another example of “playing the percentages”. If you train a large enough number of people you’ll produce enough top-class sportsmen and women. They can afford to do it, but it’s inefficient. For me, the truly successful nations are those that get the maximum yield from minimal resources, such as those with small populations, little money and/or fewer world-class facilities.

迷路 mílù (v. to get lost, lose the way)

Lessons learned this week:

1. Don’t trust Google Maps and GPS.

2. Don’t trust the internet in general.

Formula 1 came to Shanghai this weekend for the ninth year. I’ve been planning to go for the past four. This year I finally got around to booking tickets with a group of coworkers.

Jump forward several weeks to last Saturday. I and two other guys from work have gone up early to see the practice, support races and qualifying. The weather was beautiful and the prospect of a day in the sunshine with a few beers was well looked forward to by all.

Prior to race weekend we had confirmed online what we had all been told before by different people – that on race weekends the Shanghai Circuit subway station was closed. It was believed that we had to get off one stop early and walk. So we did.

One of my coworkers had Google GPS on his smartphone showing the route. 4.6km: a fair trek, but doable. We exited the station – Jiading Xincheng – and proceeded to follow the route marked out. Now, there is not a lot happening in this particular area of Shanghai. There are apartments being constructed, but for the most part it’s just empty roads and agricultural land. We headed off along one of these deserted stretches of tarmac, attracting the attention of several migrant builders and rice farmers. Eventually the track turned to mud – strewn with discarded items – and we hit a dead end. The road we were meant to turn onto WAS there, only it was 15 meters above our heads. Google Maps had failed to identify that it was an elevated highway. Not to worry, we thought, we can just follow the overgrown wasteland running beneath it.

No good. Pretty soon we hit a canal that wasn’t on the map.

Had we not been so stubborn we would have simply retraced our steps back to the subway stop. After all, it was a mere 20-minute walk back. But no, we decided to follow the elevated road in the other direction. We passed a dozen or so homeless guys living in wooden shacks, with chickens, geese and rabid dogs running around and oily water everywhere, heading in the direction of traffic sounds ahead. We came across a fence. After finding a way to edge around it – avoiding a couple of open drains hidden dangerously in the undergrowth – we emerged onto the main highway out of the city. Four lanes in either direction. Busy. Dangerous.

We walked along it. For one hour.

Every once in a while we saw an overpass traversing the highway up ahead. On at least one occasion the overpass was incomplete. We had hoped to be find a turning off of the highway. For several miles we slugged along the hard shoulder, seeking a gap in the fence and dense foliage that we could exploit. There were none, except those where no fence was needed as the ground was pure marsh.

Cars coming by honked their horns. A helicopter flew low overhead. Lorries rattled on by with bemused passengers peering from the windows. And we continued on.

Eventually we hit a turn and followed it, believing it to be our salvation. It took us onto another stretch of anonymous, inescapable highway. We could see the circuit on our left in the distance but we never seemed to get any closer. But for ten metres of canal we could have hiked across to it.

We kept each other’s spirits up with jokes, but we all started to consider the real possibility that we might never find a way off this highway. We debated flagging down a passing vehicle and hitching a lift back the way we came, but we obstinately marched on, telling ourselves that there was a turn off ahead.

After one and a half hours of tramping against the traffic we spied a small track leading down the embankment to a hole in the fence. It’s worth a try, we thought, and slid down the slope. Squeezing through the broken wiring, we were overcome with a sense of relief: relief to be off the motorway, relief to be within earshot of the circuit. We could hear the F1 cars on their practice laps and their sound became a beacon. Just head towards the engines, we told ourselves, not knowing how much further we still had to go.

Within twenty minutes we were at the entrance gate, having taken two hours to get there. As we passed through security my coworker had his beers confiscated.

Oh, and a notice in the guidebook we picked up told us the Shanghai Circuit subway station was “open as usual this race weekend”.

Feature of Nanjing Massacre Memorial

Feature of Nanjing Massacre Memorial

Feature of Nanjing Massacre Memorial

Feature of Nanjing Massacre Memorial

Feature of Nanjing Massacre Memorial

Feature of Nanjing Massacre Memorial

对峙 duìzhì (v. to confront someone)

I’m doing some exercise in front of the TV when I hear a rare knock on the door. Nobody ever visits me except to collect overdue bills. I answer. It’s the neighbour from upstairs - the very same neighbour who wakes me up everyday dragging furniture across the wooden floors of his apartment, or by marching up and down in shoes, or by allowing his evil little mutt of a dog to bark endlessly. I’ve always wanted to confront him or his wife about it.

          “Hi, I live upstairs. One of our bedsheets has fallen down into your yard.”

I live on the ground floor. My yard is the building’s dustbin, littered with cigarette butts and other assorted junk. Now it appears they have dropped something they want back.

          “Could you go and check if it is there for me?” he asks.

I should say something. ‘This is the man who has cost you hours of sleep’, I remind myself.

          “Sure. One second.”


I go and look but I can’t find it. He apologises for disturbing me - this time - and leaves. I return to my exercise.

Another knock.

          “Hi,  I can see it on the roof of your laundry room.”

I don’t want to look again so I invite him in to check for himself, being infinitely more polite than I ought to be and that he has ever been to me. He finds it and walks back through my living room with the sheet draped over a pole.

I never said anything. This morning his dog woke me up again.

I’m trying to add a question on Quora. I’ve managed to get that far but I am repeatedly being rejected when I try to include the tag ‘freedom’. Ironic, considering it’s a question about internet censorship.

I’m trying to add a question on Quora. I’ve managed to get that far but I am repeatedly being rejected when I try to include the tag ‘freedom’. Ironic, considering it’s a question about internet censorship.

A photo found online. Chinese mainlander in Hong Kong.

A photo found online. Chinese mainlander in Hong Kong.

'Skin flicks are not sex textbooks' — ex-porn star

You’d think a nation of a billion plus would be less prudish about sex, since they’ve obviously been doing quite a lot of it …


School kids, Anhui Province

School kids, Anhui Province