Athletes as Workers

I had an interesting discussion over coffee with a professor yesterday and it occurred to me during our chat that one of the most understudied things in Chinese sports is the extent to which athletes served as workers, particularly under high socialism (the time period I study) but also today. The state-sponsored sports system did not exist prior to the 1950s, but it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s especially that athletes began to receive compensation and an iron rice bowl for their service to the nation. But what is also interesting to me is that some people worked as athletes at the provincial and even factory levels — some of whom were recruited to specific provinces, municipalities, the army, or factories for the sole purpose of athletic possibilities, but who sometimes also held some other kind of job on the side (in the case of the factories at least). I am not sure how or if I can ever obtain records for this; most of what I know about how the system of state sports schools or factory danwei comes from memoirs I’ve read, and most from after 1965 unfortunately. I know that the system extended, I know that people were “traded” sometimes even — based on political background or what certain team/factory managers needed. How do I break into this? Are there sports schools or factory danwei that would let me have a glimpse as to how they recruit or have recruited people and traded them in the 1950s and 1960s? It does not look promising, I can’t find any secondary literature that details what is likely a somewhat corrupt and definitely secretive process. I think I just need to find 2-3 former athletes and then have them hook me into their network… But I really know this would be utterly fascinating if I could even pull off just a few interviews I could write a chapter or article about it.


Look! A post unrelated to the dissertation.

I have to comment on the recent trends that seem to be setting in at London 2012 in which various athletes have been accused of not upholding the “Olympic spirit” by playing the system. Let me preface this by adding that I have never been a fan of doping, but less from the perspective that it’s “cheating!” and more from the health issues it poses combined with the ways in which it’s been done and the ways in which certain sports and people seem to get singled out over others (who are also likely doping in some form or another). When people resort to covert methods — corruption, gambling, doping — I can see why people jump on them for “cheating” (that’s not to say I agree, each case differs), but when athletes and coaches play the system to their advantage, how on earth do they end up charged with cheating and being disqualified? And furthermore, why do some people get disqualified while others don’t?

I’ll discuss the two cases that prompted me to write this post.

In the first case, we have the badminton debacle involving the throwing of matches by the Chinese, South Korean, and Indonesian teams. All of whom have now been disqualified on the grounds of not upholding the “Olympic spirit.” (and leaving Germany (?) to win? Terrific, Germany wins by default twice in 48 hours – the women’s cycling teams from GB and China being the other big disqualifications, albeit by written rules and not at the discretion of Olympic officials). Is it really their fault that the Olympic rules changed this time around thus making it a better option for them to lose in order to pursue a medal?

I’m not quite sure the international community understands the importance of this sport to these nations, who likely could have taken the top three spots, and that’s not an exaggeration. Based on my own research, I know how important medaling in badminton is for these countries. First off, the Chinese and Indonesian badminton teams have had a close relationship since the 1950s. Badminton has been the pride and joy of Indonesian athletics for at least six decades now, probably longer. To be frank, it’s really the only sport they excel at in the Olympic games. In fact, overseas Chinese living in Indonesia in the 1950s “returned” to the PRC to train with or become coaches for the Chinese national teams. (I use “returned” loosely because it would be like saying Pennsylvania Deutsch “returned” to Germany after living in the U.S. for a century–most Indonesian Chinese had been in Indonesia for decades or centuries.) In my research on the GANEFO, badminton was pretty much the sport in which the Indonesians excelled vis-a-vis the Chinese (who took home 70+ gold medals compared to like… a dozen? by the Indonesians). Since then the Chinese and Indonesians have continued to do exceptionally well in international badminton competitions. (I am less familiar with the South Korean case only because they tended to not compete with the Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s due to international federation rules and the “two Chinas” and “two Koreas” issue that plagued those.)

What absolutely makes me irate is that disqualification based on accusations of “Olympic spirit” do not seem to be equal. (Although not entirely surprising to anyone who studies Olympic history — there’s been all kinds of discrimination based on race, nation, and gender as we all know.) Today when I woke up the BBC had an article about a member of the GB cycling team that won gold yesterday — who has come forward saying that he deliberately crashed his bike to force a restart and get that gold. Well, at first he apparently faked mechanical difficulties, since that’s the only way you’re allowed to restart. But since then he has let out that it was “really all part of the plan” [to win gold, of course!]. It’s still too early to tell if he’ll be stripped of a medal, but the contrast between the media’s reaction to the disqualification of the badminton teams (which led to forced apologies by the Chinese team, crap about upholding the “Olympic spirit”) to the gold-medal-holding cycling team from GB is just frustrating. There’s a clear bias that can be summed up as “GB just doing what they needed to do” in contrast to “those match-throwing Asians.”

Above all, the most ridiculous thing to anyone who studies the Olympics as closely as I do, is this utter nonsense about playing for “Olympic spirit.” You can’t tell me that Michael Phelps competes “for fun.” Don’t try to tell me that the 1936 Berlin Olympics, or numerous other events since then, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics, were just to uphold some vague notion of humanistic jargon called the “Olympic spirit.” If you’re going to disqualify someone who plays by the rules, then you’re going to have to come up with a better excuse. I hope that this Olympics leads to a re-evaluation of the mission behind the games and the rules for disqualification, but I am not optimistic. The Olympic games – which spouts generic terms like “fair play” and “sportsmanship” while ignoring the real tensions behind national and personal glory – has not stayed ahead of the curve in the past.

Another busy week

Well, the good news is that I’ve been writing and reading a lot and putting together actual pages of content (woohoo!). The bad news is this is really slow work sometimes, and other times I feel like I’m off in some direction and on some tangent that is irrelevant to the presentation I need to give in ~3.5 weeks in Bremen. 😡

All of this reading, writing, and work culminates with some pretty insane things, like staying up to 1:30AM the other night to finish a 北京市体委 report from 1962 that outlined problems, weaknesses, and overall plans… which more or less meant lots of decentralization of 体育 at the highest levels and at the lower levels national defense 体育 and mass 体育 activities that look a lot like 1952-1953.

I also went in for a health check-up at the doctor on Thursday, then rushed to the coffeeshop afterwards so I could finish reading a 国家体位 document that talked about similar activities at the national level. …..Mmmmmm soy latte at Double-Eye (the best coffee-espresso drinks in Berlin IMO)…..

Apparently combining the above type of crazy schedule with continued physically activity wears me out more than I think.  I took off Friday from running, but we took a nice 5K walk in the evening to Tiergarten/Siegessäule area and back home (it’s lovely when the sun is setting). Despite the fact that this was my second day off in 7 days (I know, can you believe it?) and two of my runs this week were 45 minutes or less, I have been sleeping a lot too. Most days I get at least 7-8 hours, but after today’s 1.5 hours run around Grunewald/Wannsee -> Krumme Lanke (I am just doing this once a week right now because it’s all I can handle*), I came home and took a long nap. Now this is not extremely unusual to take a nap, but I also woke up at 9AM this morning, proceeded around 9:30AM to then go back to bed, and finally got out of bed around 11:15 or so. After we got home from running, had showered, eaten, etc I *tried* to do some work around 3:30 or 4, powered with coffee. It didn’t last that long. I faded and the nap lasted from around 5:15-7:15 or so, and it was difficult to get up at 7:15. I attempted another hour of concentration (to almost no end) before I threw in the towel and we went for Eis (sorbet) / beer / walk / watch the euro cup in the plaza. Now, it’s 1AM and I’m exhausted again…

I guess the lesson I learned today is that sometimes my brain needs a day off just as much as the rest of my body.


*I full realize that for many people, 1.5 hours seems to be *a lot* of running, but for anyone who knows me and the kind of crazy-ass long runs and marathon/triathlon training nonsense I have done in the past, 1.5 hours is like a standard workout. My definition of “long” is around or above 2 hours of continuous running and “very long” is anything around or over 3. For triathlon training, a typical brick workout (when I was doing them) would also be 1.5 hours — a “brick” would be: 45 mins of swimming followed by 45 minutes of running. “Long” workout days were usually weekdays when I ran an hour in the morning and biked 1.5 hours in the evening. And then there were those crazy weekends where I would do a long bike ride (3+ hours) *and* a long run (2-3 hours), all within 24 hours…

More cramming

So, another day where I didn’t do any writing, just note-taking and research. There’s a lot more out there on ping pong athletes. I realized there’s a Hong Kong connection that I haven’t explored. Apparently the ping pong champions for China in the 1950s were actually a bunch of Hong Kong people who had done well and were recruited by Beijing to basically… well, build the program. I combed through a bunch of magazines from 1957 and I reckon this is pretty key. I also made a list in Excel of all the athletes from this book of interviews and noticed several star ping pong athletes noticeably ‘absent’ – one of whom is still alive. So, I started googling her and it turns out she was probably not interviewed because she helped someone uncover a ping pong match fixing scheme dating back to at least the early 1960s and lasting up at least until the late 1980s! The plot thickens…………..

The other big research thing I was doing today included reading through some (boring) directives from the period 1956-1960 or so. I’m trying to pinpoint the places where the State Sports Commission made efforts to decentralize mass sports/tiyu for ordinary people and/or focus on building elite competitive athletes for international glory — oops, I mean “friendly competition”. At the moment, it looks like it (not surprisingly) aligns with the early Great Leap Forward period, but now I’m thinking it probably began a bit earlier, in 1956, because some of the directives suggest temporarily halting the extension of programs in villages during those years. But, I need to more thoroughly record the dates and think about the words they’re using. 

And… that’s about it. I really wanted to get to some delegation reports today, but it looks like they’ll have to wait. And then I really REALLY need to get cracking on developing the 1960s chapter. I have some prose and a loose framework, but it’s going to a big chapter, the kind that will probably run well over a chapter limit. I plan to cover the 1962 Asian Games, 1st GANEFO and Asian GANEFO, and exchanges with African delegations, followed by discussing some of the memories I’ve found in documentaries and oral histories. I get overwhelmed/tired just thinking about it. 

I didn’t write anything today, so I thought I should post up what I did do. But! I also should proudly note that this is the first day in two weeks (or so) that I haven’t written at least a few sentences and/or edited something related to my own work. I’m slowly getting solid frameworks and over the last two weeks I have even created some prose (woohoo!) for two other chapters. So, that basically means I’ve started three chapters, although here’s hoping that they don’t become only two (long story short, one of them might need to be folded into another). In total I’ll have 5-6 chapters — in other words, hopefully 5 but possibly 6. I need to have 2-3 written (at least in draft form) by fall in order to apply for writing/finishing grants. (Luckily I knew ahead of time what this would require, and that’s why I signed up for all of these workshops/conferences over the next few months. Deadlines = forced success, for me at least.)

What I did today:

1) got up late. Drank a bunch of coffee. Read the news, then finished reading some ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) records I found online. They’ve digitized a whole bunch of their archival materials. How cool is that?

2) Cleaned the house. This took a while.

3) Read/looked for some more articles on 邱钟惠 and 容国团, the first Chinese female and male world ping pong champions (1961 and 1959, respectively). 邱 is still alive, so there’s quite a bit on her. 容, who was originally from Hong Kong and only joined the Guangdong training team in the mid-1950s, faced a lot of persecution in the Cultural Revolution when he, like several other team members, was labeled as a “特务嫌疑” (suspected spy). On June 20, 1968 he committed suicide. (Two other team members committed suicide previously for similar reasons.)

I find this all the more interesting given that, when I paged through 1966 新体育 last week (it stopped publication in October 1966), I noted that several of the major criticism articles were (supposedly) written by members of the national ping pong team (such as 庄则栋). This group of athletes is still alive and shows up in most 体育片 and oral history/interview books. Some have extensive biographies and memoirs and are notoriously difficult to get interviews with outside of Chinese media (go figure – I know about this because I met a guy trying to research former ping pong athletes last year, without success).

Why is ping pong so important to me? It’s not just because it’s 国球 (i.e. the national sport), or even because of ping pong diplomacy/Nixon in China (although those are both important reasons), but because 1) I am trying to trace the routes of elite athletes through international sports exchanges in places like Africa / Southeast Asia / Third world (as “ambassadors” for China) and 2) I am tracing the rise of pop culture, elite athletes at models, and the cult of ping pong star athletes in the early 1960s. It’s quite obvious that a lot of the obsession with ping pong started around then, but it has much deeper and important roots than most people often think about. Of course, they were playing ping pong at Yan’an, too, but the highlight here will be on the development of spectatorship and pop culture, not the fact that some PRC leaders liked to play it. (They liked basketball and volleyball a lot, too, but you don’t hear those called 国球.)

4) I did some more reading/thinking about how much I detest a particular book I am going to write about in the lit review. For example: why on earth would you put a statistical chart in the book with a) no reference or source info and b) no explanation of how you determined those numbers. Also, sport in China was not “sometimes Soviet, but also had Western aspects” — blech. Fortunately, there are some redeeming aspects to the book, such as referenced 体育文史 articles I can easily look up, and the author conducted interviews with a few Chinese athletes and those provide some information on their family backgrounds/feelings about their careers.

5) I read some reports last night related to the 1959 第一届全国体育运动会, although the only interesting new bit in there was that the Iraq invitee (to watch the games) apparently “did not know about the Americans’ ‘Two Chinas’ conspiracy” (yeah, right) which meant that the Chinese took the opportunity to fully educate him about the “Jiang bandits” (Chiang Kai-shek nationalists in Taiwan). This goes very well with my argument that before 1960 the obsession with making international contacts through sports had a lot to do with promoting anti-Taiwan pro-PRC (socialism) sentiment, especially among Afro-Asian-Arab nations.

We finished off the day with a walk to get dinner (falafel and baba ganouj while, inevitably, watching Spain vs. Italy on the giant TV in the cafe) and then Heidelbeer Fruchteis for me (blueberry sorbet, mmm).    Man, I’m tired, and aside from a few K of walking, I didn’t even do any exercise today.

A quick post?

I have to write something because I didn’t do much work today.* I had every intention yesterday, but then I woke up at 10AM and just didn’t feel like it at any point. Here’s what I DID do:

1) I ran for two hours in Grunewald. It was LOVELY. Very green, lots of flowers, perfect weather for running. And best of all, my feet did not hurt. In fact, I probably could have run a third hour had I needed to; alas, I am doing a half-marathon in two weeks and don’t want to overdo it. Besides, I ran a fast 10K (45 minutes and some change) last Saturday, something I didn’t think I had in me. (Not a PR – that would be 44:45 or so – because of gastrointestinal issues around 6-8KM 😦 ).

2) I had a cup of coffee and then called my parents and talked to them for two hours. We don’t see each other that often, and I don’t talk as frequently to my parents as some people given the distance and time difference, so I make a point of one long phone call every week (or two – but that’s the max) interspersed with perhaps an e-mail or shorter phone calls every now and then.

3) I wasted some time catching up on news bites on the internet. I responded to some non-urgent e-mails.

4) I walked with my husband to am Neuensee biergarten (in Tiergarten) where we had pizza and beer. Now, this is not ordinary pizza and beer: this is wood oven, thin crust, made to order, with fresh tomatoes and basil leaves on top. They had Königs (?) hefeweizen on draft. Seriously, that is my favorite beer: hefe on tap at the biergarten. It’s also the most dangerous because it’s delicious and addictive. (As in, if I’m not careful, I’ll drink too much in a very short period of time.) After that, we walked back towards home and stopped for Pflaumenstreuselkuchen at one of the cafes in Winterfeldtplatz, where we sat outside and watched part of the Chelsea-Bayern game on a big screen. (Note: the church next door had an even bigger screen set up inside, right next to a bar, but since we’d already had beer at the biergarten we decided against it. I think next time we’ll try hanging out in church to drink and watch football/soccer instead.)

To compensate for my laziness, tomorrow I will either work on the dissertation writing or provide thoughts I have over some recent things I’ve been reading related to the dissertation research. For example, I have mounting evidence that (most) early PRC leaders didn’t give a rat’s ass about the Olympics. Or, at the very least, cared about them only to the extent that it could be used as a device to piss off Taiwan and/or claim recognition on a global scale. As far as I can tell, there were no state-sponsored $$$ programs for training competitive, international athletes in 1949-1951. This was not new, however, and was a trend carried over from the wartime period: mass physical exercise was the priority and competitive athletes not so much. More on this sometime in the future perhaps…

*My excuse is that last night I found out (finally) that I will be published in an academic journal. (This in addition to acceptances into two workshops and a conference over the next 3-4 months.) Anyhow, if all works out, and I make the revisions they want, this should actually happen in the first quarter of 2013. Academia requires patience, something I’m not so good at.

Yesterday I stayed at home and read newspaper articles from Renmin ribao and even wrote a bit (!) until 5pm. Then, I went and ran a fairly fast 10K in Tiergarten, the Frauenlauf. This race is terrific – a few thousand women, good race schwag, location close to home, race course through the woods, and beer at the end (ok, it was alcohol-free, but at least it was beer, right?). My husband cheered me on, then he went to Yellow Sunshine and got me junk food for dinner–veggie burger, french fries, beer, cookies. It was totally fantastic. I’ll be doing that race again!

In other news, today we took a day mostly off and went out to Spandau to see the medieval citadel/castle. The structure and foundations have a history dating back to the 11th century (or so) slavic periods, although most of the remains dating to the 16th-20th centuries. We nerded out and got the audio guides, climbed the tower (keep) to get a nice view and see where the family hid during attacks, then walked around the “Italian courtyard” area to see where political prisoners (including those during the Nazi and post-Nazi eras) were kept. Considering we were pretty much the only visitors there today, it made for a nice and relaxing adventure to the outskirts of former West Berlin (really, this on the edge).

Of course, this means I didn’t write today. I made up for that by spending the last three hours (or so) scanning through Renmin ribao for articles related to specific items I’m researching at the moment. Last week I finally decided on a structure for my first chapter and I’ve been working on filling it in – mostly with a few lines here and there, and choosing which sources I’ll use to make my arguments. In some cases, this required me to go back and find evidence in newspaper articles (to confirm my suspicions about important dates and when political campaigns explicitly intersected with tiyu and such). Here’s my current structure, broadly speaking:

Chapter 1 (Tentative title): New Ideas and Old Models: “New” Tiyu* 

Part 1. “New” (Xin) tiyu, tiyu, and Chinese nationalism
– Tiyu and the “sick man”: nationalism and humiliation – background to the rise of tiyu alongside nationalism, and the victim (Republican period) versus victor (Maoist period) narrative. Delineating why leaders called it “New” Tiyu in the early PRC and the relationship to New Democracy. Why this delineation has caused problems in assessing continuity across the supposed 1949 divide.

Part 2: What was “new” tiyu in the minds of early PRC leaders?
– Discussion of tiyu discourse, which was central in so many early PRC meetings and publications. I hope to talk about connections and differences with previous conceptions of tiyu, including the relationship to Soviet models and discussions at the time, and what was criticized about the “old” tiyu. This will be a place for me to work out the ways in which specific Soviet and socialist discourses of tiyu came to influence early PRC leaders.

Part 3: Continuity and change: Planning and Organizing Tiyu during the Korean War
 This is where I’ll talk about the actual organization and planning that took place immediately after the establishment of the PRC, largely using archival documents of various sorts. In the second part I’ll get into the ways in which tiyu was co-opted for nationalistic purposes during the Korean War (“resist America, aid Korea”) as part of patriotic campaigns and national defense, and I’ll argue this was similar to the ways in which tiyu activities were used during campaigns found in the anti-Japanese war. I hope to end the section by also looking at the beginnings of sports exchanges with the Soviet Union that occurred around the same time as guangbo ticao (calisthenics with music/radio broadcast exercises) began to take off. These activities highlight the mass nature of early tiyu (which continued from the earlier period) and the interest in Soviet models and guidance for building these programs. (Elite international sport was definitely not a priority at this time.) This section of the chapter is still under heavy development and will include a lot of archival sources.

Anyways, this is quite a lot for one chapter, and I imagine I might have to cut out some things from the background/first section and put them in the introduction. The rest I more or less decided on only over the past week.

Let me know your thoughts, if you have any!


*I can’t remember if I explained this before, but “tiyu” is a word that is difficult to translate, and that’s part of what I’ll discuss in this section and/or the introduction of the dissertation. Tiyu is usually translated as either “sport” or “physical culture” (or both) but I believe it is much more than that – it is a discourse that involves bodily practices including exercise, sports, and physical culture related to cultivation of a healthy and strong body, and it also includes (often) physical education. In the time period I’m looking at, 1949-1966, it serves a central place in socialist construction and socialist citizenship, helping train/transform people into socialist citizens in “new China.” Tiyu comes to include many different activities – everything from typical ball sports and Olympic sports, to national defense sports (like parachuting, model airplane competitions, and wireless transmitter contests), mass exercises set to music, tug-of-war, and taiqi. Most importantly, because of its connection to work units (danwei) and the school system, it was extremely difficult in urban areas to totally avoid participation in all tiyu activities.