This piece briefly looks at some of the possible reasons how and why a country such as China has gone from a Paralympic also ran in 1984 to become the strongest Paralympic nation in the world by far at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games and beyond. In Athens they topped the medal table with 28 more gold medals than the team finishing in second place and yet have a GDPpc that ranks them only 118th in the world and is eighty percent less than that of the second place nation in Athens, Great Britain. In 2012 they won 59 more gold medals that the country in second place. The table below shows the development of China’s performance at every summer Paralympic Games since they first began competing in 1984.
Table 1. The development of China as a Paralympic nation.
(T: Total team size, CWM: Countries winning medals, %AM: Percentage of all available medals won)
As can be seen from the table, China have improved their share of the medals at every Paralympic Games they have competed in (with the exception of 1992 when they sent a much smaller squad) even though the number of countries winning medals has almost doubled in the same period.
Under Mao strong and fit bodies were a pre-requisite for a strong and fit China. Sport and Physical Education were considered a vital component of nation building because the mother body, China itself, is considered to be made up of all of the bodies within it. Therefore, if they are strong and fit then China itself is also considered to be strong and fit to take on the world (Stone, 2001). MacClancey (1996) claims that Sports may be used as a resource by which the powerful attempt to dominate others. The forgers of the Soviet state were well aware of its potential. To them, sport was a tool for socializing the population into the newly established system of values. Fan Hong et al (2005) draw a similar conclusion about China when they state that the Chinese government uses sport as a window to show the world the new image of communism in the new era; as an ideology to unite Chinese people in a sporting patriotism as Marxist-Leninist and Maoist ideological beliefs begin to decay and as an opium to distract attention from severe social problems such as corruption and unemployment. They go on to claim that since the 1980s China’s sporting success has been regarded not only as evidence of ideological superiority and economic prosperity, but also a totem of national revival. Attending the Olympics and other international competitions and performing well became the symbolic means of catching up with and even beating the Western powers. “Develop elite sport and make China a superpower in the world” became both a slogan and dream for the Chinese (Fan Hong et al, 2005).
So where do the disabled, who account for between 60-100 million people in China, fit into this philosophy? According to Chi Jian (2005), Vice Chancellor of Beijing Sports University, attitudes to disabled people is one of the standards by which the progress of social civilization is measured. He also claims that China has held sports competitions for the disabled since the 1950’s. So is China’s rise to superiority in Paralympic Sport really a true reflection of the way people with disabilities are regarded and treated within Chinese society? Much has been made of the fact that Deng Pufang, the son of former Chinese Leader Deng Xioaping, and himself a wheelchair user, heads up the Chinese Disabled Peoples Federation. Many new laws have been passed aimed at improving the lives of disabled people and international recognition has been gained through the success of the Chinese Paralympic team and the Disabled People’s Arts Troupe that has toured the world. However, Stephen Hallett, a visually impaired reporter for the BBC who lives in Beijing and has a Chinese wife, in a series of articles about life in China, states that according to most of his disabled friends in China, the CDPF has become deeply corrupt, bureaucratic and self-serving. The hype of the Paralympics and the disabled people’s art troupe is quite unrepresentative of the tens of millions of people with disabilities who have seen little improvement in their lives (Hallet, 2006a). In a further article he quotes:
“China’s disability organizations aren’t there to serve disabled people Wang Yan told me the other day. They are primarily there to serve the government and make a good impression on foreigners.”
In the same article he relates the tale of a blind former local government official, Fu Yun, who went blind in her forties, taught herself Braille and offered her services to CDPF as a volunteer only to be told ‘we don’t have disabled people working here. What do you think a blind person like you can do?’ (Hallett, 2006b)
There are many other examples that appear to contradict any claim China might make that their performance in the Paralympic Games is an indication of the progress made by disabled people within Chinese society. An article in the newsletter for the Cerebral Palsy Sports Organization in the UK cited a Chinese newspaper report that quoted an education official as saying the new rules under which all undergraduates have to submit to a medical exam to assess their medical suitability and physical fitness should prevent disabled people from “clogging up” Chinese Universities. Meanwhile, a senior university official was quoted as saying “These days, no college is willing to take a disabled student…allowing one disabled student in only encourages others.” (CPSports Newsletter, 2005)
Stone (2001) claims that under both Maoist body principles and Deng Xioaping’s free-market economy, both have led to the alienation of the disabled – the former for their weakness and the latter for their non-productivity. She goes on to state that the propaganda surrounding disability sport has been another mechanism through which to shift the burden of disability away from the state and onto society in general and disabled people in particular. The government often holds up examples of courageous disabled, such as Paralympic champions, to encourage and possibly shame for not doing their part, other disabled people into following suit. Unfortunately this appears to be without providing the means to do so, as is evident in the following comment from Wang Xinxian, the Vice Chairman of CDPF, who stated “all of our disabled players are non-professional athletes and most do not have a stable job. They have to consider their family’s economic situation when doing sports. Some excellent athletes have had to give up sports for financial reasons.”
Although the above is only a brief insight into China’s possible motives for investing so heavily in Paralympic sport, it does appear from the evidence found that the success is not a true reflection of the way disabled are treated and regarded within China. They appear to be taking similar approaches to those of the former Soviet Union and East Germany, only they are applying them to disability sport. Indeed Chi Jian (2005) states that local sports associations for the disabled have set up files of adolescents and children in local hospitals, welfare institutions, elementary or middle schools and schools for disabled people. These measures are to help find talent as early as possible and as quickly as possible. It would appear then that China has a number of motivations behind its Paralympic success. On the one hand it wants to portray itself to the rest of the world as an economic power which looks after all of its people with equal care through its slogan “develop elite sport and make China a superpower in the world.” On the other hand it wishes to distract the attention of its people from problems at home and to pass the issues surrounding disability onto society and disabled people in particular by holding up examples of Paralympic success to shame other disabled people into trying to make more of their lives without providing the means to help them.
In concluding it should be made it clear that the author does not believe that China is the only nation by any means to be guilty of such actions. They are simply the most obvious example. The author calls this process ‘athletes as a means to a political end’. It has gone on in the Olympic Games for many decades. The fact that the Paralympic Games is now being used for political propaganda is simply proof that the Paralympic Games have truly arrived as an international sporting spectacle with all the political machinations that that entails.
Chi Jian, 2005, The Development of Sports for the Disabled in China, paper presented at the IV International Forum on Elite Sport, July 26-28, 2005, Montreal, Canada.
CPSPORTS newsletter accessed online (25-11-05) at
Fan Hong, Ping Wu & Huan Xiong, Beijing Ambitions: An Analysis of the Chinese Elite Sports System and its Olympic Strategy for the 2008 Olympic Games, article provided through personal communication.
Hallett, S, 2006a, One eye on China: Back in the People’s Republic in Ouch, Thursday 26th January accessed online (28-7-06) at
Hallett, S, 2006b, One eye on China: Mainly for Show in Ouch, Thursday 28th February accessed online (28-7-06) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/features/one-eye-on-china-mainly-for-show.shtml
MacClancey, J., 1996, Sport, Identity and Ethnicity in MacClancey, J. (Ed), Sport, Identity and Ethnicity, Berg, Oxford, p. 1-20.
Stone, E., 2001, Disability, Sport and the Body in China, Sociology of Sport Journal, 18 p51-68.
Tang Yuankai, Taking on fate: Disabled Chinese in Sports accessed online (28-7-06) at http://www.bjreview.com.cn/200443/Nation-200443(B).htm
This post is adapted from a previously paper entitled ‘Paralympic success as a measure of national social and economic development’, published in the International Journal of Eastern Sport and Physical Education, Vol. 4(1), 38-47.