Opinion: Australia-China Sports Relationship - by 2013 Delegates


The Australia-China Sports Relationship By 2013 delegates Sam Cook, Cindy Gottinger and Lulu Shen



While China and Australia maintain divergent social and political landscapes, sport is a source of common ground – a pastime able to transcend cultural boundaries to form the basis of meaningful people-to-people exchange (P2P).

Similarly, in a modern era where sport is lucrative, sports can form the basis of business-to-business exchange (B2B) through, for instance, the hosting and promoting of sporting events and the marketing of sporting products through sports stars.

There have been several successful cases of collaboration between Australia and China in the field of sport. Despite this, the use of sport to bolster the bilateral relationship remains underdeveloped.

Sport in the Australia-China Relationship

The notion of ‘sport’ means different things to everyone – but we submit that sport is any physical or recreational activity that results in health benefits. Sport can be further divided into categories such as ‘unilaterally enjoyed sports’, being sports that are more popular in and which China or Australia (as the case may be) tends to competitively outperform the other country in – such as badminton for China and AFL for Australia – and ‘mutually popular sports’, which are enjoyed in both countries and Australia and China are both competitive. The consulting firm Red Elephant provides a list as such:

Mutually Popular Sports

Unilaterally Popular Sports (China)

Unilaterally Popular Sports (Australia)


Table Tennis




Rugby League



Rugby Union



Field Hockey


Dragon Boat Racing



Synchronised Swimming


Track & Field











Touch Football

Water Polo


Surf Lifesaving


Lawn bowls

Historically, certain ‘mutually popular sports’ have attracted greater spectator interest during international competitions than sports that are unilaterally enjoyed. For this reason, ‘mutually popular sports’ are arguably a more successful platform for Australia-China sporting exchange.

However that is not to say that the variety of ‘mutually popular sports’ remains stagnant. China and Australia both have an ageing population, a demographic factor that may alter our sporting outlook. For example, low-impact sports such as lawn bowls could become popular in China and tai chi is fast gaining traction in Australia.

Moreover, China’s growing levels of wealth and urbanisation mean that the ‘sporting appetite’ of its middle class is diversifying. For example, businesspeople in China are increasingly playing golf, a popular outdoor game played by a significant number of Australians, due to the business-oriented and social nature of the game.

The focus on and expansion of ‘mutually popular sports’ is important since these sports form the basis of an Australia-China ‘common interest’. in order to target sports which could be considered ‘mutually enjoyed’, credence should be given to emerging social trends in Australia and China.

‘State run vs. Grassroots’- The ‘Sports Diplomacy’ Conundrum

Comparisons can be drawn between China’s unparalleled economic rise and its successes in sport. However, this is not coincidental, and is rather a result of China’s large population, changing economic outlook, and the fact that China operates under a system of State control.

In China, competitive sport is used as a mechanism to promote national image. Since its opening-up and reform from 1978 China has adopted the juguo tizhi sporting system, or the ‘whole country support for the elite system’, that according to the Red Elephant consultancy is “based on an Olympic medal-oriented policy, centralised management and administration that channel the country’s sport resources into elite-sport”.

China’s ‘top-down’ approach to sports administration is conducive to its use as a diplomatic tool in the form of ‘sports diplomacy’. This form of exchange is executed at a government-to government (G2G) level, where, according to Stuart Murray of Bond University, “representative and diplomatic activities [are] undertaken by sports people on behalf of… their governments… to engage, inform and create a favourable image”. China has successfully used famous sporting stars such as Yao Ming and its recent Olympic successes for the promotion of its national image, thereby engaging in sports diplomacy.

Despite Australia being a self-professed sporting nation, the notion of ‘sports diplomacy’ remains a part of ‘public’ diplomacy, and its use as a diplomatic tool is undeveloped. But legitimising and formalising ‘sports diplomacy’ in Australia would be a logical step to enhancing Australia’s relationship with China.

However, such a ‘top-down’ approach is arguably not without its pitfalls. While China’s state-run system is crucial to national sporting success, the huge costs associated with a state-administered system are making it increasingly unsustainable.

In contradistinction to China, although Australia has a dedicated Minister for Sport and sporting bodies such as the Australian Institute of Sport, much of Australia’s sport is administered via a ‘bottom up’ approach, through ‘grassroots’ movements such as local sporting clubs.

The flexibility of this model as well its ability to reach a wide audience, whether domestic or international, should not be ignored in the context of P2P relations, as in this model every sportsperson is a diplomat for their country. Similarly, the non-state control of these organisations means that they are an ideal forum to facilitate P2P exchange through business and culture, through via events as sporting carnivals and sports tourism.

However, the success of the ‘bottom up’ approach is contingent upon government support. Whilst some of these clubs are ‘corporatised’ in nature, many are under-funded. Furthermore, the visa restrictions between Australia and Chine arguably restrict the opportunities for P2P exchange. The support of grassroots initiatives by the government through policy and funding will assist in the proliferation of greater P2P sporting exchange.

The Business of Sport

Sport is becoming a lucrative business. The promotion and hosting of sporting events between China and Australia brings big bucks and attracts spectator interest. Similarly, corporate sponsorship is a major incentive for sporting clubs and Chinese brands are already making inroads into the Australian consumer market through deals such as Huawei’s sponsorship of the Canberra Raiders rugby league club.

However, the ‘corporatisation’ of sporting clubs is an emerging global trend. These clubs are administered like a corporation, and unlike government they are unconstrained by policy and have greater flexibility to pursue business opportunities. Similarly, unlike many grassroots organisations these revenue-driven bodies possess the capital to invest in new business ventures that can more readily infiltrate emerging markets.

The Australian Football League (AFL) is an example of a corporatised sporting body. In 2010 (and after several years of planning), the AFL made its debut in China with an exhibition game as part of the Shanghai World Expo, which attracted over 7,000 spectators. Subsequently, in 2011, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the Australian Government and the AFL, under which the Australian Government would work with the AFL to support AFL’s development overseas and to promote trade and investment using AFL as a platform.

In 2012, the AFL launched the AFL Football Academy at the Guangzhou Sports University campus in Guangdong province. The Academy aims to introduce athletes to the AFL and to identify and develop potential elite players. This year, the Academy’s most notable recruit, Chen Shaoliang, visited Melbourne to play and train with several Victorian local football teams. Chen has become an ambassador for the game and his visit has had the desired effect of bringing AFL to the attention of the local Australian-Chinese community.

These AFL branded initiatives demonstrate the utility and versatility of using corporatised sporting bodies as a means for sporting exchange, and reveal how B2B can complement activities facilitated through G2G and P2P exchange. Identifying opportunities for B2B collaboration will be central to achieving greater bi-lateral sporting exchange.

Despite these developments, as a ‘unilaterally popular’ sport it is questionable whether AFL will gain traction in China. Lack of familiarity with the code, coupled with intense competition from truly international sports like soccer, poses challenges to the export of the AFL. Thus the true benefit of these initiatives may lie at the local Australian-Chinese community level.

However, since its inclusion as an Olympic sport, rugby is increasingly seen as a platform of exchange in which Australia is well placed to offer its expertise and services. Former ACYD delegate and Australian Rugby Sevens Vice-Captain Jacob Taylor argues thay rugby as a “professional sport, aligned with a number of public and private entities...provides a space in which commercial and diplomatic partnerships can be forged...between China and Australia”. Ensuring that the offerings of sporting organisations align with consumer sentiments is a necessary feature of B2B sporting exchange.

Where to from here?

Sport is a basis for establishing connections between China and Australia. However, in order to capitalise on this it will be necessary in the coming years to; 1) Utilise a targeted approach to ensure that the sports which are used as the basis for exchange are ‘mutually enjoyed sports’; 2) Use both the ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ methods of sporting exchange to facilitate greater P2P exchange, which could be achieved through both legitimising ‘sports diplomacy’ and greater support for ‘grass roots’ campaigns; and, 3) Harness the potential for B2B exchange in sport and identify opportunities for ‘multi-dimensional’ collaboration using B2B combined with P2P and G2G exchange.