Boosting participation will win Olympic medals

TAIPEI, Taiwan, The China Post Editorial

The Olympics are drawing to a close. Taiwan won several medals — both bronzes. These outstanding athletes are to be commended for their personal achievements and for bringing honor to their country. This record is far from being a disgrace, but fell short of the gold and silver that President Chen had hoped for. However, it is far from the achievements of sporting nations, some smaller than Taiwan, have made. Why is this so?

Taiwan is good in some areas — it performed commendably in baseball, even though it did not take a medal. Baseball is popular in Taiwan. Young boys play it and people like to watch it — and Taiwan’s Little League is again doing well in the world championships. This gives a clue as to where Taiwan is going wrong in sports in its quest for Olympic medals — simply too few people play and appreciate sports. The secret is not to manufacture medalists, but to improve participation. At an age when many young people in other countries are playing sports, Taiwan children are studying in cram schools. If the truth be told, young people who engage in sports are regarded as being a bit stupid. This shows a lack of balance in the lives of the island’s young people. Sport is not about hard work — it’s about having fun. You can’t treat sports as some sort of manual labor — the reasons young people participate in sports is they like to have physical exercise, compete and generally have a break and diversion from school life. Cultural norms also stand in the way of Taiwan’s success. Mainland China is concentrating on women’s sports, because Chinese women are at less of a competitive disadvantage than men compared to physically stronger nations, yet not many women in Taiwan play sport — hardly any do because it is considered not feminine to develop the muscles needed in sport. Let’s look at two countries that have done well in the Olympics, Australia and Hungary. Australia has a smaller population than Taiwan, yet it is third on the medals list. Australia always does well in swimming and in other disciplines such as cycling and field hockey — not to mention baseball. Sport is very popular in Australia — people of all sorts and income groups have a keen interest in sport. Australia also has the Australian Institute of Sport — a government-sponsored body that grooms young athletes in a wide range of sports. It would be folded if it were not supported by the population, but no government would dare abolish it — it is simply too successful. The Australian way of life encourages sports — it is an open air nation, the climate is good for sports and there is a tradition and history of achievements — outstanding sportsmen and women are honored and looked up to. In some sports Australia is a sporting powerhouse — in swimming, for example. Hungary is a small country in central Europe, but it also always does well in the Olympics. In some disciplines, such as fencing, it is a traditional world leader. It’s always very good in other areas such as water polo — in both cases, sports have a very strong popular following. Hungary was once part of the Soviet bloc, but it has continued its sporting achievements as a free nation. As for Taiwan, once, sports was a way to get off the island. Being in an outstanding sporting team or being a high-achieving individual athlete offered a key to a better life and the chance to travel and see new things. The same still applies in countries that are dictatorships, like Cuba — it is a way to get ahead and see the world. Now Taiwan people can simply buy an airplane ticket and they can go anywhere — not least to Taiwan’s adversary across the Taiwan Strait. So if Taiwan wants to win more medals in 2008 in Beijing, it must begin by popularizing sport. Taiwan is a small island, so sporting facilities are limited, but more can be done. In other nations, sportsmen are heroes. If more is done to popularize sports, then it is likely that more people will want to join in. Sports that already have popular followings, such as table tennis, weightlifting and taekwondo, can be encouraged and developed. Would an Australian-style Institute of Sport be possible? This would require support of the government and the development of a sporting culture, plus the necessary facilities and coaches. There’s no reason why it wouldn’t work, but public support is necessary to make it a reality. Taiwan has never won an Olympic gold. What sporting nations such as Australia and Hungary — not to mention giants like the United States and Russia — offer is both participation and rewards. Until there is a change in Taiwan’s sporting culture, improvement is unlikely. But Taiwan people are good at almost everything they have taken seriously, so winning sports fame is not to be ruled out — it won’t take much money, but rather a culture of encouragement — why not have a sports man and woman of the year, in a gala ceremony with President Chen in attendance? This would be like the awards for excellence that TAITRA hosts for manufacturing. It would bring honor to successful sports people and encourage a culture of excellence in sports. It’s worth thinking about — a Taiwan Sports Academy to encourage excellence, like the Academia Sinica does in academic culture.