In January 2004, the government of China announced that it would be sending a total of 350 athletes to the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens and, that to date, 178 athletes had already qualified for the national team. With China on deck to host the Summer Olympics in 2008, sports, and the athletes who participate in them, are taking an increasingly visible role in Chinese society.
Chinese people, like those of most societies, love sports. The sports pages of magazines and newspapers are filled with stories of the ups and downs of the local teams, the national teams, and even the latest scores of English Premier Football and the NBA. They have their sports heroes, from gymnast Li Ming, diver Fu Mingxia and basketball star Yao Ming to Michael Jordon and David Beckham. A China Daily article of July 2002 claimed that there were 13,000 registered professional athletes in China. From that pool, roughly 1300 are chosen to represent China on her various national teams.
I recently spoke with a young woman who once played professional football and served on the national team. I asked her about the life of a professional athlete in China. Ms. Li (not her real name) was assigned by her leader to play football for the factory. After that, she was recruited to play on professional squads in two different provinces and, from there, she went on to play for the national team. “It was not my choice,” she told me. “My factory boss told me that I had to play football.” She told me that this was a common route into professional sports ten years ago.
Another route into professional sports is the state-sponsored sports schools. Scouts from the sports ministry or various athletic associations travel the country visiting schools, looking for future talent. When someone with potential is spotted, they are channeled into the national sports schools. This always means leaving their families and going to live at the schools which are usually located in distant towns and cities. If the school is close enough, they can go home on the weekend. If not, then they only go home for the holidays.
In recent years, as a result of the economic reforms, some of the athletic associations and professional teams have begun to recruit from the college and university systems.
Ms. Li highlighted two main factors that motivate young athletes. One is the desire to change their life situation. Many, especially those from poor families or impoverished regions, hope that a professional sports career will bring them financial prosperity. It is possible to get rich in the Chinese professional sports world, according to Ms. Li, but only for the men. Between their regular salaries, product endorsements and sponsorships, professional footballers, in particular, do well. Another motivating factor for athletes is the chance to play on the national team and bring honor to the nation. As is the case with any country, athletes long to represent their nation at the Olympics and other international tournaments.
When asked about the life of a professional athlete in China, Ms. Li used two Chinese terms: jianku, meaning arduous; and yapo, meaning oppressive. “The life of the professional athlete is extremely difficult. The training is hard, and we must commit our lives to the sport. We have no free time, and we rarely see our families. The team becomes our family.” The pressure to succeed is relentless, and the training is often excessive, even to the point of being cruel.
The difficulties persist once the athlete’s career is over as well. Because athletes grow up within the system of sports schools, they do not receive a good education, thus making it difficult to find work. The stars can get rich from endorsements and establishing their own companies, but the vast majority of “retired” athletes have a hard time adjusting to life out in society. They have spent their lives in a rigid, structured environment with little or no freedom or training in decision-making.
Ms. Li is a Christian, and I asked her about Christians within the professional sports world in China. She told me that although there are not many, the number of Christian athletes has been growing in recent years. Where, or how, does a professional athlete have the opportunity to hear the gospel, I wondered. She told me that, like other young Christians in China, many learn about the gospel from Christian parents or grandparents. She also told me of a situation in which a foreigner was brought in to coach a team, and that foreigner was a Christian who was active in teaching his players about Christianity. She told me that while being a Christian professional athlete was difficult ten years ago, today things are much more relaxed, and athletes can be open about their faith.
According to Ms. Li., reaching professional athletes with the gospel is not easy. A major factor is the transitory nature of their lifestyle. Athletes are constantly on the move and have little time or opportunity to build lasting and stable relationships or connect with local fellowships. She also believes that the gospel is best preached from within, by Christian athletes living out their faith, being good examples and telling their fellow athletes about Christ. “It’s very difficult for those from the outside to be involved in evangelism with professional athletes.”
Finally, I asked Ms. Li how best to pray for Chinese professional athletes. She again reminded me of how difficult life is for an athlete and that many are depressed and unhappy. (She used the Chinese word, kumen, meaning “depressed, dejected.”) She also suggested that it would be good to pray for the coaches and for government leaders, that they will pay closer attention to the life of the athletes and do a better job of preparing them for life outside the state-sponsored sports system.