China / China

With Olympics, sport gains new stature in China

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily) Updated: 2016-06-20 08:15

Golf's return to the Olympics is boosting the image of a game that has been associated with money and corruption in China, and the country's sports authorities are getting behind it in a big way.

Amid the government crackdown on unauthorized golf courses and related corruption, the Chinese Golf Association since 2013 has been ambitiously nursing a group of elite players with support for technical training, physical therapy, facilities and logistical arrangements.

The players include women's major championship winner Feng Shanshan and men's domestic No 2 Li Haotong.

The association is focused on the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August, when golf makes its way back to the quadrennial sporting extravaganza for the first time since 1904.

The goal for Chinese golf is to first qualify as many homegrown players as possible for the Rio Olympics, and then to promote the game as an affordable exercise for China's ever-increasing middle class, rather than just a luxury pastime for elitists, it said.

To better support golfers under the national umbrella, the association has hired a crew of foreign coaches, including Australian Greg Norman, a two-time British Open champion and former men's No 1, and South Korea's LPGA veteran Park Hee-jung to guide the men's and women's teams.

Fitness trainers and physical therapists have also been sent overseas at the nation's expense to accompany promising players and keep them in top physical condition en route to the Games.

Under International Golf Federation rules, the top 15 world-ranked players as of July 11 of both genders will qualify for one of Rio's 60 slots in the men's and women's divisions, with a limit of four players of each gender per country.

The remaining spots will go the highest-ranked players from countries that do not already have two golfers qualified.

Feng, the current world No 12 woman who won the 2012 LPGA Championship - the mainland's first major title in golf - is spearheading medal hopes for Rio, while her younger compatriot Lin Xiyu, ranked No 58 in the world, is also angling for a slot.

On the men's side, Li, who just fired a bogey-free 64 to claim his first European Tour title at the China Open last month, has improved his world ranking to No 134 - the second highest among Chinese golfers - and will compete with two fellow seniors, No 127 Wu Ashun and No 195 Liang Wenchong, for two possible tickets to Rio.

As the country's only legitimate medal hope in Rio, the 27-year-old Feng, who has 14 professional titles to her credit, makes no secret of her ambition.

"If I could choose from an Olympics gold medal and a major championship, I would definitely go with the medal," said the Guangdong native.

China's national golf team, like the country's tennis team, is assembled solely for competition at the Olympic Games, unlike group sports such as basketball or soccer, where the national team is composed of a fixed set of players who receive ongoing support and training.

Golfers are assigned temporarily to the national team for Olympic competition, and work around their schedule of professional tour events.

This approach follows the country's traditional State-run sports system, which has produced abundant gold medals at the Olympics, said Tan Jianxiang, a sports sociology researcher at South China Normal University.

Zhang Xiaoning, vice-president of the golf association, said, "There is unbalanced development between Olympic sports and non-Olympic sports in China. Golf had been restricted to a small group of people for a long time.

"But we have a totally different situation now. We are set to have more support from the public as well as the government, and we are looking forward to seeing Chinese players tee off in Rio."

With Olympics, sport gains new stature in China
Feng Shanshan watches her shot on the ninth hole during the third round of the Meijer LPGA Classic on Saturday at Blythefield Country Club in Belmont, Michigan. Gregory Shamus /Afp

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