31.05.06 – By W. Gregory Guedel: Let’s start with a small number — one. That’s the total number of Olympic boxing medals China has captured in its history. Light-Flyweight Zou Shiming’s bronze medal at the 2004 games in Athens represented China’s first and only placing in the sport on the Olympic stage. One is also the total number of professional titles won by Chinese boxers. In April 2006, female fighter Zhang Xiyan became China’s first ever professional boxing champion by defeating America’s Alicia Ashley for the WBC women’s lightweight crown. One amateur medal, one professional title. Not an overwhelming number.
Now let’s look at a bigger number — 1.3 billion. That’s the total population of China, the largest on the globe and five times the size of the United States. No country has more manpower within its borders, and no country has a larger pool of potential athletic talent than China. As its economy expands continuously at almost unprecedented rates, the Chinese government finds itself flush with cash to spend on projects of its choice. In keeping with the socialist state tradition of using sport to garner international prestige, China is dedicating increasing sums of money to the development of its athletic programs.
The overall performance of its amateur athletes has steadily improved, and its Olympic squad at Athens placed an impressive third in the overall medal count. The ultimate exhibition of this progress will soon be unveiled, when the world gathers in China for the XXIX Olympiad. Given the “home court” advantage in medals that generally accrues to Olympic host nations, China will undoubtedly increase its haul of boxing medals and be a serious contender to place first in the overall medal count for the 2008 Beijing games.
China’s lack of previous boxing success is somewhat puzzling in light of the country’s martial arts traditions, which stretch back for millennia. “Chinese Boxing” is itself a form of martial art in the Kung Fu family that is practiced by many world-wide, although it bears little resemblance to its pugilistic cousin. It is an historical anomaly that the European powers that occupied various areas of China through the 18th and 19th centuries did not introduce Western-style boxing as they had in other colonial regions. The “export” of boxing by imperial powers assisted in creating generations of top-class fighters from Africa to Latin America to the Philippines, but China was surprisingly isolated from this cultural exchange. The lack of past experience and training infrastructure has hampered Chinese competitiveness in boxing to date, but it does not present an insurmountable challenge for the future development of fighters.
Presently, when China lacks a tradition in a given sport, it “goes global” and retains coaches from abroad to assist in developing its athletes. China’s national soccer team has been coached by Yugoslav Bora Milutinovic, German Klaus Schlappner, and Briton Bobby Houghton. When swimming was targeted by China’s athletic federation as a medal-producing sport, the government imported sports scientist Professor Helga Pfeiffer, one of the architects of East Germany’s “unified performance analysis system” that resulted in the domination of Olympic swimming by East German women in the 1970s-80s. This practice is not without its detractors, and the surge in performance of Chinese athletes has resulted in allegations of doping and even genetic modification of athletes. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that when China sets a goal of achieving success in a given sport, it has the determination and resources to produce dramatic results. It is likely that the governing body for China’s boxing program will seek to replicate this process by accessing the knowledge and experience of trainers from other countries, who will no doubt be tempted by the lucrative coaching fees the government can offer.
In terms of developing professional boxing, one of the basic elements necessary for success is the opportunity for home-grown fighters to regularly compete in professional bouts. For most of the 20th Century professional boxing was illegal in China, which preempted Chinese boxers from developing professional-quality skills unless they went overseas. With the government’s present loosening of its rigid restrictions for professional sports, and the international interest in accessing the gigantic market of Chinese sports fans, a professional boxing scene in China is beginning to blossom. Recent bouts in Chinese cities have featured popular attractions such as Butterbean and Mia St. John, as well as legitimate contenders such as Antonio Davis and Frankie Zepeda. As pro fights gain in popularity and domestic promoters begin to multiply, the money available to finance significant matches will inevitably grow. This will provide a strong lure to foreign fighters — just as the money for fighting in Germany does today — and the presence of overseas talent should accelerate the development of Chinese fighters.
China’s vast population and ever-increasing wealth offers huge potential for future sporting success. The development of boxing in China rests in the hands of a government that has proved it is willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve victories in sports it wishes to showcase. When the government does elect to put its power behind sports development, the results don’t take long to materialize. Between the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the 2004 games in Athens, China nearly doubled its total haul of medals. The absence of an illustrious tradition in boxing is not likely to prove an obstacle either. It is worthwhile to note that China has essentially no tradition in basketball, yet one of its own received the highest number of fan votes for selection to the 2006 NBA All-Star Game. Can a nation that is capable of producing a basketball star like Yao Ming also produce the next Muhammad Ali?