New stars and big troubles: China’s 2021 in sports

Society & Culture

Peng Shuai, the collapse of Chinese soccer, calls for Olympic boycotts: on one hand, it's been a tumultuous year for China sports. But there have been reasons to celebrate 2021, too, from 14-year-old Quan Hongchan’s diving perfection to the emergence of the country’s No. 1 winter sports star, Eileen Gu, to Zhou Guanyu becoming China’s first F1 driver.

China sports in review 2021
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

It’s fair to say that 2021 has been an exceptionally turbulent year for Chinese sports. After a COVID-hit 2020 that saw the delay of the Tokyo Olympics and the postponement of many top sporting leagues and competitions, there was hope that global sports would return to some semblance of normality.

But not much has changed in China. Harsh COVID restrictions remained in all of the country’s professional leagues, with athletes confined to bubbles and quarantines for stretches that could last up to six months at a time, while the games continued to be played in fixed locations to mitigate travel.

International sports remained absent from the Chinese sporting calendar, with only a handful of events, primarily Olympics test events, allowed to take place. Those hoping that the #RESTART table tennis series China hosted at the end of 2020 would signal a wider reopening were left disappointed.

But sports went on within the country’s borders. If you missed anything the past year, we have you covered: the most notable stories from each of the past 12 months.

January

The year started with the introduction of new financial regulations in the Chinese soccer world by the Chinese Football Association (CFA). Concerned with huge spending levels by Chinese Super League (CSL) clubs, and under pressure from the government, the CFA introduced a number of new regulations designed to rein in spending, especially since 2020 saw the disappearance of Tianjin Tianhai.

The most controversial of these regulations was the neutral name policy. Announced in December 2020, this new regulation aimed to eliminate corporate branding from the names of the clubs and replace them with soccer-sounding names, like FC, City, United.

A total of 58 clubs would apply to change their names during January.

FC, United, City, etc.: Chinese soccer’s major rebranding

This policy actually helped hasten the country’s soccer collapse as corporate owners, hit by COVID and government regulations, saw less reason to invest in their loss-making clubs.

February

Guangzhou Evergrande, the modern era’s most storied club, became Guangzhou FC; Shanghai SIPG became Shanghai Port; and Hebei China Fortune simply became Hebei. The only teams to not change their names were Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua, two clubs whose names were considered iconic enough to save.

One name that was not considered iconic enough to save was that of current champions Jiangsu Suning. As financial difficulties hit the ecommerce giant, the benefits of owning a soccer team diminished rapidly. Jiangsu, which had once outbid the likes of Liverpool to sign their star players, dissolved. The current Chinese soccer champions no longer existed by the end of the month.

Jiangsu FC and the troubled state of Chinese soccer

March

Putting behind the February blues, China was introduced to a new sports star. Eileen Gu (谷爱凌 Gǔ Àilíng), an American-raised naturalized Chinese freeskier, made history at the world championships by becoming the first skier to win two gold medals in the FIS Freeski World Championship, and the first Chinese skier win in a non-aerial event.

The 17-year-old, who began representing her mother’s homeland at the Youth Olympics the year before, announced herself to the skiing community — and China — with her amazing victory in Aspen, following up on her X Games triumph the previous month.

Now, with the Olympics two months away, Gu has become a household name and represents one of China’s safest medal hopes.

Gu creates history again, triumphs at Freeski World Championships

April

China’s first-ever UFC world champion, Zhāng Wěilì 张伟丽, lost her strawweight title to American Rose Namajunas after a brutal head-kick KO in the first round.

Namajunas, who is of Lithuanian descent, stirred controversy in the build-up to the fighter after she brought up the Cold War trope “better dead than red” in an interview with a Lithuania broadcaster.

Meanwhile, the Chinese women’s national soccer team put its male counterparts to shame by qualifying for the Olympics, securing a vital win against South Korea thanks to the heroics of Wáng Shuāng 王霜.

The attacking midfielder scored a dramatic extra-time winner to send her country to Tokyo in front of a packed-out Suzhou stadium.

This would be the high point for Chinese soccer this year.

Wang Shuang’s extra-time winner sends China into Olympics

May

In May, the Guangdong Southern Tigers claimed its 11th Chinese Basketball Association title in overtime by defeating the Liaoning Flying Leopards in the decisive game.

Under the stewardship of former national team player Dù Fēng 杜锋, Guangdong has built a dynasty based on the experience of seasoned pros such as Zhōu Péng 周鹏 and Yì Jiànlián 易建联, combined with the consistent excellence of overseas stars such as Sonny Weems and Marshon Brooks and up-and-coming youngsters such as finals MVP Hú Míngxuān 胡明轩.

However, the month will be remembered for the tragic deaths of 21 runners in an ultra-marathon in Gansu.

21 dead in Gansu ultramarathon due to extreme weather

Caught in a freakish turn of weather during the 100-kilometer race, runners were forced to take shelter in caves and with local herders. The fallout from the tragedy caused the government to ban extreme sports and postpone all non-essential sports events “to welcome the 100th anniversary of the founding of the party and create a good environment and atmosphere.”

The month finished in bizarre fashion as WWE superstar John Cena was forced to release an apology video for calling Taiwan a country while promoting his new film. The apology video continued to follow the wrestler around for the rest of the year.

June

The Sūn Yáng 孙杨 affair was finally put to bed. Sun, who in 2020 was banned from swimming for eight years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) after he stopped drug testers from testing him, found a slight reprieve in April after the Swiss Supreme Court ordered a retrial. But the new CAS panel upheld the ban on the three-time Olympic champion, albeit reducing the length to four years.

Also this month, Lǐ Yǐng 李影, a Chinese women’s national team striker, came out as lesbian with a Weibo post celebrating her one-year anniversary. Li became the first high-profile Chinese athlete to come out.

Sadly, Li was hit with a wave of homophobia online, and deleted her post after allegedly receiving pressure from higher-ups in Chinese soccer. She also found herself left off the Olympic squad, despite being China’s top goalscorer in the third round of Asian Olympic qualifying.

Soccer player Li Ying becomes first high-profile Chinese athlete to come out

July and August

Domestic sports came to a standstill during July and August as the country turned its attention to the “2020” Tokyo Olympic Games, delayed a year due to COVID.

Expectations were fairly low, but China made an excellent showing, nearly topping the gold medals table (eclipsed by the U.S. on the final day).

China continued its domination in its “big six” sports of table tennis, diving, weightlifting, badminton, gymnastics, and shooting. There were also a number of medals in the pool, with Zhāng Yǔfēi 张雨霏, a 23-year-old who won two golds and a silver, emerging as a future Chinese sports star.

One of the biggest stars of the entire Games, however, was Quán Hóngchán 全红婵, whose breathtaking perfection in diving left people speechless.

Quan was dubbed the country’s “little sister,” and her personal story was quickly circulated. “(My) mom is sick, but I don’t know how to read the character (of the disease) … so I just want to make a lot of money to pay for medical bills … and cure her,” Quan said in an interview; as a result, donations flowed into the family, who also received thousands of visitors.

September

China’s dominance in the Paralympics continued.

From the first event to the last, China led the medals table, with wins coming from everywhere. China finished an astonishing 55 gold medals ahead of second-place Great Britain.

Domestic sports resumed — except for the Chinese Super League, which was paused to allow the national team to focus on the final round of Asian World Cup qualifying. Matched up against Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, China’s men’s national team faced an uphill battle to get to Qatar. (Spoiler: the team would not get up that hill.)

October

Attention turned toward the Winter Olympics, which will be hosted by Beijing and Zhangjiakou next February.

October saw the announcement that Beijing 2022 would ban overseas fans from attending the Games and that tickets would only be sold domestically. (Two months out, tickets have yet to go on sale.)

To assuage fears that international athletes could get caught up in China’s harsh travel restrictions, organizers announced that fully-vaccinated athletes and Olympic personnel would be able to avoid China’s strict three-week hotel room quarantine rule. A “closed-loop” bubble would only require athletes and personnel from China to quarantine on their way back into China.

In addition, China began to host test events — with foreign athletes — that were delayed from last year.

Meanwhile, more and more voices began to call for a boycott of the Games.

Enes Kanter, center for the Boston Celtics, was one such voice. Starting with calling for Tibetan independence, Kanter went on to highlight the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. This would result in the Celtics being removed from streaming sites in China.

November

The world was rocked by allegations made by Chinese tennis player Péng Shuài 彭帅 that she was coerced into sex by former vice premier Zhāng Gāolì 张高丽. Then, nothing was heard from Peng for several weeks, leading to Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) chairman Steve Simon calling for an end to censorship of this topic within China and an independent investigation. Later, the WTA announced that all women’s tournaments in China would be suspended.

Peng’s disappearance caused Chinese state media and affiliates (including the International Olympic Committee) to work overtime to explain her safety.

Peng Shuai tells IOC she’s fine, but doubts remain

Toward the end the the month, it was announced that Zhōu Guànyǔ 周冠宇 would become China’s first-ever F1 when he joins Alfa Romeo Sauber’s driver lineup next year. The 22-year-old Shanghai native joins the smaller Sauber team bringing decent financial backing and the potential to help spread F1 throughout China. His teammate will be the former teammate of Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, who could be the perfect mentor to help Zhou adjust to his new hardwear. Zhou finished second in the F2 championship this year.

December

The Chinese sports year ends under immense uncertainty. Peng Shuai continues to hang over the international opinion of China and the Beijing Olympics. More and more calls to boycott the Games are made daily, with the U.S., UK, and other governments already announcing a diplomatic boycott.

Meanwhile, China’s harsh COVID measures have meant that China has not seen international sports return to the country in any significant way this year. Chinese sports have become isolated from the rest of the world, and if serious efforts are not made to reintegrate with the international sporting community beyond the Games, China risks being left behind.

2021 also ends with Chinese soccer in disarray. The national team is without a manager after it sacked Lǐ Tiě 李铁, while the domestic game is on the brink of total collapse, with 11 of the 16 CSL teams in arrears.

Next season’s CSL, which will be delayed once again so the soccer world can watch the national team try and fail to reach the World Cup, will be a list of teams that survive the offseason, rather than teams there on merit.

Chinese soccer 2021: A postmortem

But there were plenty of positives in 2021. China’s efforts in the Olympics and the new stars made in Tokyo will inspire future generations. And with the Beijing Winter Olympics starting in two months, we’ll be guaranteed to have reasons to follow China sports through 2022 and beyond.


The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.