For Chinese Olympians, Winning Is No Longer Everything
On Monday, shortly after winning an Olympic silver medal in men’s weightlifting, China’s Wu Jingbiao broke down during a live interview for the CCTV network. “I’m ashamed for disgracing the motherland, the Chinese weightlifting team and all those who supported me,” he sniffled. “I’m sorry!”
As the stunned interviewer reached out to console him, Wu bowed in a dramatic expression of guilt and remorse for committing what has long been a cardinal sin in Chinese sports: failing to achieve gold in an Olympic event in which you are heavily favored.
Wu’s meltdown was well-timed, landing in the midst of an intense public debate over whether China is too obsessed with winning Olympic gold medals -- and only gold medals. On one side is a Chinese public increasingly impatient with state-run media that promote an aging view of Olympic success that values a gold medal as the only achievement worth noting. On the other side is that same state-run media and its unerring desire -- nicknamed "gold fever" by some -- for tangible, countable results. Of China’s state-run newspapers, none is more enthusiastic about gold medals than the hyper-nationalist, Communist Party-owned and operated Global Times. On Monday, it ran merely its latest editorial against those who would denigrate the all-important pursuit of first place:
Taking part in competitive sports has greatly inspired China in shrugging off its poverty and isolation in the past decades. … Chinese athletes' performances in the sports arena have accompanied the nation's rising status and efforts to integrate with the world. Xiao Tian, deputy head of the Chinese Olympic delegation, didn't attempt to hide the pressure the Chinese athletes are feeling at the London Games. He said the Chinese public would abuse the delegation if they couldn't meet their expectations of the number of gold medals. Undoubtedly, the majority of Chinese still pay a great deal of attention to the Olympic medal count.
On the last point, at least, the Global Times is correct: The Chinese public does indeed pay attention to the medal count, in part because they have no choice. Since Saturday, no Olympic telecast, website or sports page has been complete without a small table showing just how many more gold medals the Chinese team has accumulated than the competition -- and specifically, than the U.S.
And what of the silver and bronze winners? They’re mostly forgotten. On Saturday, CCTV viewers watching the women’s 10-meter air-rifle competition witnessed an interviewer brush past Yu Dan, the Chinese bronze medal winner, to get to Yi Siling, the gold medal winner. China's microbloggers picked up on the egregious example of “gold fever.” “This warm and quiet girl sensibly left without a fuss,” tweeted a user of Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog. “You paid for this nation’s fragile vanity.”
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it’s unlikely that “gold fever” would have been denounced in such explicit terms. After all, in the run-up to the event, the Chinese authorities spent considerable sums of money for the explicit, stated purpose of winning the most gold medals. Whether the Chinese people, in 2008, shared their passion for this goal is an open question. But this year, at least, there’s considerable evidence that they don’t care. On Sunday, for example, the well-known actor Chen Kun tweeted a photo of himself and 2011 French Open champion Li Na. Li, as Chen’s followers certainly were aware, had just been knocked out of the first round of the Olympic women’s tennis singles competition. The caption Chen wrote was indisputably corny but worth noting because it's precisely the sort of thing a well-known actor would have avoided saying in the past:
A gold medal isn’t everything! Athletes represent the nation, themselves, and us, when they take part in games, no matter whether they can win a gold medal; no matter whether they win a medal or not, they deserve our encouragement. Their full-hearted struggle deserves our applause. Don’t hurt these brothers and sisters who practice hard in training rooms from a very young age! We the audience should be their warmest supporters!
China’s first-place obsession dates back three decades, at least to the 1984 Los Angeles summer games -– mainland China’s first since 1952. Among the Chinese participants was Zhu Jianhua, the nation's first international track-and-field star. Zhu was widely expected to win gold in the high jump, but he managed only a bronze. Meanwhile, back in Shanghai, an angry mob smashed the windows of his home. Hands were wrung over the act, but its underlying message remained: Olympic gold enhances national prestige.
“A gold medal means you’ve won honor for the country, and only a gold medal deserves such notice,” wrote the Jing Bao, an independent Shenzhen newspaper on Monday, in a mocking take-down of the attitude. "Silver and bronze mean failure and regret.”
These days, the direct and implied expression of that attitude comes almost exclusively from the state-run media. In fact, before the London Olympics even the bureaucrats who run China’s state sports administration went out of their way to make public statements that reduced pressure on athletes. Meanwhile, among China’s microblogging masses, there’s almost universal support and sympathy for Wu Jinbiao and his weightlifting silver medal. Crowds didn't appear to smash the windows of his home, and if they did, they’d be widely condemned on the Internet.
Most remarkably, China’s microbloggers have started condemning state media and others who criticize the country’s athletes for not earning gold. A notable opportunity came on Sunday when the City Times, an obscure newspaper in Yunnan province, declared that Zhou Jun, a 17-year-old weightlifter from Hubei province, was a “disgrace” who had brought “shame” on China’s weightlifting team when she failed at her first three attempts in the women’s 53 kg weightlifting competition. Her performance was labeled a last-place “DNF” -- or did not finish. Even if the failure was worthy of being labeled a "disgrace," China’s microbloggers were quick to note, the fault was not Zhou’s but rather that of an incompetent local sports bureaucracy that chose to send her to the Games before she was ready .
Predictably, China’s state-owned sports networks have avoided the subject of incompetent state-run sports bureaucracies in favor of more gold medal fanfares. CCTV’s endless Olympics coverage remains fixated on gold-medal winners, even though most of China’s online population doesn’t seem particularly impressed anymore.
“In today’s world, nobody will show more or less respect to the Chinese on the basis of how many gold medals they earned in the Olympics,” tweeted a self-identified nuclear scientist in Sichuan Province. “I don’t care about Olympic gold medals, either, because I know they’re irrelevant to our national power, the people’s daily life and their health.”
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.