Engaging in China?  Be nimble and pragmatic! - IWGA Interview of the Month: Julian Gornall-Thode

Engaging in China? Be nimble and pragmatic! - IWGA Interview of the Month: Julian Gornall-Thode

The IWGA Media Workshop on 28th and 29th September at the Olympic House in Lausanne will focus amongst others on the topic of communication in and with China. Julian Gornall-Thode, General Manager of the Lausanne Office of Shankai Sports, explains in the IWGA Interview of the Month why it is worth working hard to overcome possible hurdles. This is certainly true for The World Games 2025, which will take place in Chengdu, People's Republic of China. The company Shankai has begun this year to support the IWGA in staging a successful Games in China.

You will be speaking at the IWGA Media Workshop in Lausanne, what will be your topic?

Julian Gornall-Thode: Broadly speaking my topic will be China, from several different angles: some historical background, contemporary context, cultural differences, and suggestions on how to work there. As this is a media workshop, I will also speak about the ever-changing media landscape in China. For this, I have also enlisted the help of a colleague at Alibaba Group, the digital technology giant that has transformed the online space in China, and has been a Worldwide Partner of the Olympic Games since 2017. I think it will be interesting for the participants to hear directly from them how digital innovation is transforming people’s lives.

Why have you and your company been invited to speak on this topic?

Julian Gornall-Thode: Shankai Sports is at its heart a European and Chinese company. In 2009, our two Swiss and two Chinese founders set themselves the mission of connecting China to the world through the business of sport. Over the following decade, we established major partnerships between leading Chinese brands and global sports properties, created a market in China for hospitality at major sports events, and supported international sports organisations in multiple ways to do business in China. I have lived in China for 15 years - plenty of time to make faux-pas that I hope, by sharing with others, I can save them from making!

What is the importance/reputation of Chengdu in China?

Julian Gornall-Thode: Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province and a major economic hub of western China. With a population of 20 million, it is the fourth largest Chinese city. High levels of investment into sports infrastructure and hosting major international events are part of an ambitious plan to become a world city of global sports events. Chengdu is a combination of super-modern facilities and glitzy skyscrapers, and lush parks with traditional tea houses. It is probably most famous for being the home of the panda, as well as the culinary speciality found all across Sichuan: spicy hotpot.

Many of the communication channels common in other countries - such as Youtube or Instagram - are not accessible in China. What are the ways to overcome this hurdle?

Julian Gornall-Thode: It is true that some of the big global platforms are not accessible from China - Youtube and Instagram, and also Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Google and others. However, this does not mean that Chinese internet users do not watch video clips, use social media or search the internet. Quite the opposite: China has a highly developed and diverse digital landscape, it is simply populated by other platforms. Streaming happens on iQIYI, Migu, Youku; social on Weibo, WeChat; search on Baidu; short video on Douyin, Red, Kuaishou; long video on Bilibili. To have an online presence in China means to have an online presence on these platforms.

But it's obviously not just about technical hurdles, but also about cultural differences. Can you give one or two examples of that?

Julian Gornall-Thode: That’s correct. A first point is that China is a mobile-first country. Many people in China will have engaged in the internet directly on mobile, without the detour of becoming accustomed to a desktop computer. Therefore, many platforms are geared towards mobile use: easy to access, easy to consume, easy to share. Another point is convenience: rather than having a dedicated app for every online activity, Chinese users like to be able to do multiple things in one app. Take WeChat for example, where you can chat with friends, post an update, read the news and order a taxi, all in one app. A third point is commerce: Chinese users like to buy online, so many platforms link back to the opportunity to shop. And the biggest e-commerce platform Taobao is now an entertainment hub where you not only shop, but also watch, read, chat and connect.

Can you give an example of what an organisation should definitely do and something that it should definitely not do?

Julian Gornall-Thode: Any organisation that wants to engage in China should definitely do so in a fully committed way. That means taking the time to understand the market, adapt business strategies, establish local relationships, and identify trustworthy partners. It means being nimble and pragmatic in decision making to be able to adapt to a fast-moving market. It also means not simply copying and pasting a global approach or underestimating the cultural differences. Digital media is incredibly influential in China, and it is important to ride the wave rather than being washed out by it.

These last questions were mainly about challenges. But what about the opportunities?

Julian Gornall-Thode: China’s digital insularity is both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity is to gain access to 1.4 billion people - almost one fifth of the global population. From engaging people to play a sport, to building interest in watching major tournaments, to creating commercial opportunities for partners, China is a hugely important territory for any organisation that aims to establish a global footprint.

Why is it worth building communication bridges?

Julian Gornall-Thode: Communication is the solution to all problems! A lack of communication can lead to apprehension, misunderstanding, and conflict, and so building bridges is particularly important where there are cultural and linguistic differences. Sport is the perfect platform to build bridges, to encourage communication, and to celebrate what unites us rather than what divides us.

You know The World Games and their sports. Which are already known and popular in China? Which ones have yet to conquer their audience?

Julian Gornall-Thode: The World Games bring together a wonderful mix of different sports. Those sports that are on the Olympic programme, but represented at The World Games with different disciplines, are generally well known in China. Others have historic roots in China (such as Wushu), highly successful Chinese athletes (such as billiards sports), or experienced a wave of unexpected popularity on social media (such as flying disc). Yet others will be less known to Chinese audiences – consider it a clean slate and boundless opportunity to grow awareness of the sport in the run up to Chengdu 2025.

Is there a question that I forgot to ask but that you would like to answer?

Julian Gornall-Thode: Any visitor to Chengdu will almost certainly be served hotpot at some point during their trip. How about asking me for my top 3 tips for eating hotpot?

  • Often the hotpot will be split in two parts: a fiery red spicy side, and a more tame fragrant broth side. If you like spicy food, cook your meat and starch vegetables in the spicy side, but use the broth to cook tofu and leafy greens – these tend to soak up a lot of the broth and too much spice risks making your ears pop!
  • When the pot arrives at the table, it will come with all kinds of spices and condiments inside: chilies, pepper corns, aniseed, onions, etc. These are for flavouring only, don’t attempt to eat them!
  • Use the ladles provided to extricate your bounty from the depths of the pot, to save yourself the trouble of fishing around in it with your chopsticks. And take the ladle out of the pot after use, or you risk burning your fingers when you next touch it!

 The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association, organised with the support of the International Olympic Committee. The World Games 2022 was held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 7-17 July 2022. 3,600 athletes from 34 sports and 100 countries took part in the Games. The 12th edition of The World Games will be held in Chengdu, CHN, 7-17 August 2025.