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Feature: Sports manufacturing legend highlights China's vitality over 40 years of development
Last Updated: 2018-08-02 15:07 | Xinhua
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Bian Zhiliang still remembers the drizzly day 40 years ago when he drove a donkey cart along a muddy road to deliver ten judo mats which he had surreptitiously made for a police school.

It took Bian, then a 20-year-old farmer, two days to complete the odyssey from a hinterland village to Jinan, capital of east China's Shandong Province where, in his first deal as a sports goods manufacturer, he earned 5,000 yuan, a sum then equivalent to the income a farmer might expect to make over 70 years.

"I found no better way to make money than making sports mats, and even though it was illegal then, I decided to do it," said Bian, who is now President of Taishan Sports Corporation, whose revenues reached 4.7 billion yuan in 2015.

Being a self-employed businessman was banned in China in 1978, as the country was still recovering from the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. But Bian chose to run the risk of being caught and sentenced for the crime of speculation.

"Life was too hard for us farmers. I needed to feed a large family and prevent my children from starvation and lack of schooling. I had no other choice but to do business to earn money," Bian said.

At first, Bian peddled anything and everything he could find, until a chance encounter with a sports teacher at a police school led to the beginnings of a career that would span 40 years.

The teacher asked Bian to help make ten judo mats. Though he had no experience in doing so, Bian wanted to give it a go. He studied a shabby mat provided by the school as a model before he and his wife began handtailoring those mats on their heated brick bed, which served as working platform.

QUALITY CONTROL THROUGH SELF-HARM

To test the quality of the mats, Bian devised a rather unusual approach.

"We had no instruments but my body at that time. I jumped down barefoot from the 3-meter high roof of my house onto the mats. I knocked my head forcefully against them to see how it would feel if athletes' heads hit the mats," he said.

"I often got swollen ankles and concussion from doing that. I put quality of the mats before my health. The safety of the mat users and the athletes are the top priority. From then until now, this philosophy has never changed."

At the end of 1978, the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China was held, kickstarting China's historic reform and opening-up drive. With this change, the nation's fortune, and that of Bian's, began to be transformed.

As part of the new reform measures, people were once again allowed to be self-employed, meaning Bian no longer needed to fear being caught as a speculator.

The following year, two important events occurred which helped kick-start Bian's fledgling business. Firstly, Bian received a business license to set up Taishan Sports Equipment Factory in his hometown of Laoling, located 236 kilometers southeast of Beijing. Then, on November 26, China was reinstated into the IOC, meaning that the country could once again participate in and host the Olympic Games.

It was beyond Bian's wildest dreams that sports equipment produced by Taishan Sports could one day feature at the Olympic Games.

"I dared not imagine that a farmer's enterprise would have its products used by the Olympics," he said.

EXCRUCIATING METAMORPHOSIS

On the evening of July 13, 2001, a big screen TV was erected in a second-floor room at the Taishan Sports factory. A truck full of fireworks was parked downstairs.

"We were all watching the live broadcast of Beijing bidding for the 2008 Olympics. If it failed, we would push the TV down the stairs and smash it. But if it succeeded, we would set off firecrackers to celebrate. For us it was a make-or-break situation," said Bian.

Beijing's ultimately successful bid to host the 2008 Games marked the beginning of a painful journey for Taishan Sports.

"In order to be eligible to supply Olympic equipments, Taishan Sports needed to gain certifications for their products from the governing bodies of the Olympic sports," explained Luo Jie, Secretary of the China Sporting Goods Federation.

"That meant Taishan had to conduct a lot of research involving high technology. It was a Herculean task for a farmer's company," added Luo.

Before getting these certifications, Taishan Sports had to submit product samples to the designated labs for testing. It proved costly and time-consuming.

"Our mats were subjected to more than 100 tests, and our gymnastics apparatus even more," remembered Bian. "There was always something out of our control. For example, the temperature variation in the course of transportation sometimes caused subtle changes to the mats and led to them failing the test. Packaging and delivery costs alone ran to into the tens of millions of yuan. We couldn't afford the time and money spent."

"On hearing the news of a test failure, I always burst out crying, knocking my head against the wall. It was excruciating mental agony. But when I pulled myself together, I urged my staff to prepare for the next test. I was determined to pull it off at any cost."

He did it.

Taishan Sports was the largest equipment supplier at the Beijing Olympic Games, with involvement in 122 of the Games' 302 gold medals.

"Beijing Olympics transformed Taishan Sports, elevating us from a local Chinese brand into an international one," Bian said.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Taishan Sports, by now an established brand, supplied nearly 10,000 pieces of equipment.

The mats Bian delivered to the police school in Jinan 40 years ago cannot be traced. Since then, Taishan Sports has expanded from Bian and his wife making mats over their bed at home, to a giant sports goods manufacturer with over 5,000 employees and 6,000 different product lines, including some winter sports goods.

"Beijing will hold the 2022 Winter Olympic Games and this will give us another precious opportunity like the 2008 Olympics did," Bian said.

According to Miu Zhongyi, president of the Chinese Gymnastics Association, China's policy of reform and opening-up has been the making of Taishan Sports.

"The growth of Taishan Sports coincides with the development of China since 1978. Looking at Taishan Sports, you can interpret the secrets of China's economic rise."

"China's reform and opening-up released the vitality of the nation, making it possible for a farmer like Bian to succeed in sports goods manufacturing," Miu added.

Without these significant social changes, Bian may still have been an underground mat-maker, living in fear of being caught breaking the law.

Bian was one of the 140,000 people to have received a license to run a privately individually-owned business in 1979. That number has since risen to 65,790,000, accounting for 94.8 percent of the main market players and contributing 60 percent of China's national GDP.

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