China's chase for glory has lessons for India

China's development has been systematic, spreading out across the planet to learn, drawing coaches into its ambit, and then fine-tuning its approach, writes Rohit Brijnath.

More than a century ago, the Olympics were a running joke in China. Although no official record exists of Baron De Coubertin's supposed invitation to China to attend the 1896 Olympics, it is rumoured there was one.

Apparently the invitation was received by the empress dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty, which caused some consternation since reportedly no one in her court was quite sure what the "Olympics" meant. When it was revealed this was an event that included running, she replied: "Well, we may send some of our eunuchs who are running the court so well. They are good runners."

Nothing regarding the Olympics is remotely funny in China any more. It is evident in the journey of 647 Chinese athletes to Doha. It is clear in the instructions to Chinese stars that commercial endorsements are to be halted for they are a distraction. It is obvious in the Chinese table tennis team's decision to not send its best two players to the Asian Games in order to scout new talent.

No degree in Da Vinci code-breaking is required to connect these signs. China may be there in body in Doha, but spiritually it is readying for its athletic battle of Beijing 2008.

As much as some Chinese methods may not work in democratic nations (paper-pushing Indian politicians may like to, but endorsements can't be banned), there is a single-mindedness to its mission that India can reasonably imitate.

It is interesting for instance that 400 of China 's 627 athletes in Doha will be rookies. In Athens, 323 of 407 athletes were Olympic first-timers. These numbers are not by chance. A massive force is being tried and tested for Beijing. Such basic long-term planning appears foreign to the Indian experience. Who is going, and why, fits no particular pattern. If there is mission, we do not know it.

Not that Doha is only a workshop for athletes, but also an expedition of discovery for Chinese officials, 26 of whom are visiting Doha to scrutinise arrangements. From media transport to maybe even the width of the volunteers' smiles, if the Chinese can find something to improve their Games it will be jotted down. Indian "observers" at major events have traditionally been gifted at writing sightseeing reports.

For many nations, sport is the neatest of advertisements of itself to a watching world. Athletes are nimble ambassadors, able to hurdle suspicions and transcend language with their dazzling skills. It is not a particularly complex seduction and eventually China embraced this idea.

Ironically, India made its mark more emphatically and earlier than China at the Olympics. By 1932, when China sent its first sole representative to Los Angeles, India already had a gold in hockey from 1928. Yet what irony that China, which was not part of the Olympic movement from 1954 till 1984, is a sporting superpower and India impoverished in that regard.

It is interesting that India is still chasing Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, yet, has never made the step up to hosting the Olympics. For a burgeoning economic power, it would seem the obvious advertisement, yet our performances suggest we are not ready.

India held the Asian Games in 1951, 1982 and wants to do so again, mostly on the rationale that it will be beneficial to Indian sport, switch on a revolution, as if polished stadia and new flyovers is all it takes. But repeated Games have not shown the improvement we desired. Medals have increased but not our position on the table.

Since 1974, for instance, India's gold medal haul at the Asian Games has been 4, 11, 13 (home Games), 5, 1, 4, 7, 11 and its position on the table has been 7, 6, 5 (home Games), 5, 11, 8, 9, 7. More or less it has stagnated in its progress up the ladder. China has topped the medal table six times running, and Doha will be no exception, and its gold medal tally since 1974 reads 33, 51, 63, 94, 183 (home Games), 125, 129, 150.

China, incredibly, did not host its first Asian Games until 1990, long after smaller nations such as Thailand and Indonesia and the Philippines. Again it did not seem an arbitrary event but a fundamental part of a plan to gain the Olympics. Rebuffed in 2000, finally, exactly a century since the Tianjin Youth magazine asked in 1908 when China can host an Olympics, its time will come.

China's development has been systematic, spreading out across the planet to learn, drawing coaches into its ambit, and then fine-tuning its approach. As Chen Yungpeng, a swimming coach told me at the 1994 Asian Games: "First we know what the world does, then we make our own method."

Its system is powered by over 3000 sports schools, where athletes such as the legendary diver Fu Mingxia left home at age nine (others at age five), having being selected according to their physical characteristics for specific sports. It is a philosophy based around the idea that if you pick thousands of athletes, the likelihood of finding a champion is greater.

Mass sport should suit India, but it is disorganised and scouting is inadequate. Most pertinently, of course, while athletic factories are not unknown across the world these days, attending those in China does not always involve choice. In India, fortunately, the state simply cannot haul a six-year-old off to a sports school a hundred miles away.

What is worth replicating is ideas like China's recent 119 Project. Traditionally China has flexed its muscles in table tennis, diving, gymnastics, shooting and women's weightlifting for instance, but has been spectacularly ineffective in track and field, swimming and water sports such as canoeing and sailing. In Sydney it won one gold in those disciplines. The 199 Project refers to the gold medals available in those disciplines, which China must train for and accumulate if it is to lead the Olympic medal table. And that is its only goal.

In 1988, China was 11th on the Olympic medal table, in 2004 it was second. Only America was unsurpassable. It is this race with the superpower it wants to challenge in every field that China will most want to win at home. To not do so is to lose face.

This is where Doha matters, for the Asian Games for them is both serious competition yet also dress rehearsal. The Chinese have arrived there primed to compete with Asia, yet with every medal they will also be measuring themselves against the rest of the world. Success in the desert kingdom is important because failure two years hence is not an option. India may choose to watch and wonder. Or learn.