Susan Brownell: Expert on Chinese sports is interviewed about the Olympics

Historians in the News

Few foreigners know Chinese sports and the Olympic Games like American anthropologist Dr. Susan Brownell.

Since her championship performance in track & field at China's second annual National College Games in 1986, Brownell has worked to build cultural bridges between Beijing and the 'West.'

Her first major work - "Training the Body for China" - was well received in 1995, and her second – "Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China" will hit bookshelves this March."

A member of the International Olympic Committee's Selection Comittee and anthropology department chair at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, Brownell feels, more or less, at home here. From 2002-2006, she translated Olympic diplomat He Zhenliang's biography.

I spent an afternoon with Brownell at her current base of operations - Beijing Sport University. A Fulbright U.S. Research Scholar for 2007-2008, she is working closely with Chinese academics and officials. Below: a truncated version of that interview.

What do you recall from your first year in Beijing - 1985-1986?

I first came here in 1985 to study Chinese at Bei Da (Beijing University). At that time I was a national-class track & field athlete in the United States - in the heptathlon. Actually, I had just competed in an international meet. I'd already begun my Ph.D at the University of California - Santa Barbara, I'd studied Chinese for two years and written two master's theses. My plan was to research sports in China.

After arriving, I went to the coach of the track team at Bei Da. He said I could join. I still remember that conversation - him asking me my best performances and times. My Chinese wasn't good at that point and he had a thick provincial accent. I had trouble understanding him. He couldn't believe that I'd just been training at such a high level - only a few weeks before. He kept thinking I was a retired athlete, because in China at that time you just didn't see high-level college athletes. All the athletes with promise were tracked into the state sports system, where their education was de-emphasized. In fact, that was a major problem back then. The state sports system was producing more high-level athletes than could be absorbed back in as coaches and administrators. They called it an 'exit problem' - chulu wenti. Even at that time, people were making efforts to hook up the state sports system with colleges - like in the U.S.

Anyway, as it happened, China's second National College Games were to take place that year. Other universities had been recruiting student athletes like crazy - accepting those with low admission scores and, in some cases, waiving entrance exams. All the universities hoped to gain face from the Games. But Bei Da (generally considered China's top university) had refused to lower its admission standards. The coaches there were worried that Bei Da was about to lose face.

That year, the Games were to consist of only two sports: track & field and basketball. So when Bei Da's coaches and administrators realized that they had a legitimate student on their doorstep who had passed all the requisite tests and who was a heptathlete capable of setting records and medaling in a number of events (Brownell), they were ecstatic. I was the answer to their prayers....

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