Why China dominate the Paralympics

With the 2016 Rio Paralympics coming to a close on Sunday, there was no doubt which nation topped the charts.

China racked up an incredible 107 gold medals during the two week event in Rio to top the medals table by some margin. Great Britain were a distant second with 64 golds.

The nation dominated many aspects of the Games, but it’s swimmers were the most productive, earning a whopping 37 gold medals. To put that in perspective, the United States – once a powerhouse at the Paralympics – won 40 golds across all sports this year.

It was a similar story in track and field, with a haul of 32 golds and again at the Riocentro where China’s wheelchair fencers won 17 medals in total with nine golds. This was the third successive Games that China had won the most medals in fencing.

Incredibly, this is not even China’s most dominant performance at the Paralympics, but more on that later.

So what makes them so good? Well, China’s massive population certainly plays a part. The nation of over 1 billion has around 85 million disabled people, which is more than the total population of Germany and the United Kingdom.

As a result of this huge base of potential athletes, according to the Sports Department of China Disabled Persons’ Federation, around 10 000 disabled have registered as athletes and at least 3.35 million have participated in some kind of sports activity at least once in the past five years.

To put it simply, China has more reserves than any other country. In fact, Chris Furber, Great Britain’s para-swimming performance director, believes China can lose half their Paralympic athletes and still be competitive at the highest level.

“If they lose 30, 40 or even 50 percent of their athletes on the way, China can still be left with enough athletes to compete,” said Furber.

“Because of this population size they can perhaps run a more rigorous training programme than we can.”

China has also invested heavily in the future of theses athletes, training more than 42 100 fitness instructors for the disabled and building 225 provincial and 34 national specialised sports training centers.

Hua Qingpang, a former official with China’s National Paralympic Committee, revealed more.

“The increase in coaches, physical trainers and support staff dedicated to these athletes at the grassroots level has helped more disabled people with athletic talent and passion train more scientifically,” he said.

“The medical support, rehab therapy and mental guidance as well as management for disabled athletes have been improved as well.”

So not only does China have more disabled athletes than anywhere else, it also has world-class facilities and support structures around them.

But where did the inspiration for all this come from? China does not have the best human rights record when it comes to people with disabilities.

A recent study revealed by Human Rights Watch indicated that one in four children with disabilities is not in school because of discrimination and exclusion.

Furthermore, it revealed that some with disabilities such as blindness were not being catered for when it comes to writing the crucial national university entrance exam.

Well, the answer comes from the Paralympics. In 2001, Beijing was awarded the rights to host the the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and the Paralympics, cuing the flood of money and social investment mentioned previously.

The new structures for China’s disabled athletes started paying off as early as the 2004 Paralympics, where they improved from sixth on the medals table to first.

After dominating by a bigger margin at home in 2008, China’s Paralympians enjoyed their best ever Games in London 2012, as they won 95 golds, nearly three times as many as Russia (36) and more than double their total medal count.

As it would seem, the awarding of the 2008 Paralympics to Beijing was the zephyr that would eventually create the perfect storm for China’s Paralympians.

However, another aspect to consider the way China motivates their athletes. Funding incentives are a big part of the Chinese Paralympic machine.

In many cases, reports reveal that the reward for winning gold is such a large sum of money that the athlete’s family benefits for generations to come.

However, fencer Jianquan Tian revealed he has other motivations to win gold.

“There might be a bonus, but I don’t know how much it is,” quipped the three-time Rio medalist.

“There is some funding but [more important than that], we really treasure the opportunity to compete. We take it very seriously and we’re very determined as a people. Upholding the honour of our country is our top priority.”

Honour, effort, support and funding, It is not one, but all of these things that contribute to China’s Paralympic dominance over the last decade and it doesn’t look like anyone can catch up…

Doug Mattushek