China’s Olympic Soul-Searching: What the Games Have Taught the Country

The Olympics have sparked debates in China about the country’s obsession with winning and its victim mentality.

Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images

For many Chinese, the London Summer Games have been an eye-opener, igniting unprecedented debate about everything from patriotism to sports ethics to obsessing over gold medals.

For a number of Chinese, especially younger generations, the London 2012 Games are only the second Olympics they’ve followed closely. And their first, in Beijing four years ago, was hardly a routine sports event. The 2008 Summer Games were a global coming-out party for this emerging economic superpower, and competing on home turf helped China top the gold-medal tally for the first time ever, beating the USA 51 to 36. The Americans, however, won the total medal count (110 to China’s 100) and paved the way for the sporting world’s current Clash of the Titans, now about to conclude in London.

Chinese debate has often pitted nationalistic voices against those seen as “liberal.” These arguments have raged in the media, and especially through Weibo microblog accounts (essentially China's Twitter), which have provided citizens the closest thing they have to freedom of expression despite continuing Internet censorship and the “Great Firewall of China.” Here are some of the lessons learned and debates ignited during these Olympics.

China is a victim, still.

The victim mentality has characterized much of China’s dealings with the outside world, based on the country’s humiliations at the hands of foreign “imperialist” powers during the Qing Dynasty. It’s a recurring theme in many international competitions, and one that might even intensify if the USA tops China in the gold-medal count and the total medal tally in London, as is expected.

When Western media and officials aired suspicions of doping after Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen set a new world record in the women’s 400-meter individual medley, Chinese media erupted with criticism of the West’s rush to judgment. Pointing out that Ye passed doping tests conducted by the world anti-doping agency, an editorial in the daily Global Times stated that “negative comments about [Ye] and Chinese athletes come from deep bias and reluctance from the Western press to see Chinese people make breakthroughs….and [show] that the unfriendliness of the West to China is spreading.”

A commentary in the China Youth Daily pushed back, declaring that Olympics-watching was “too tiring” if conducted with a “victim mentality.” However, accusations that the West is “demonizing” Chinese talent, as the Global Times put it, returned with a vengeance after two Chinese badminton players (along with six other nationalities) were disqualified from women’s doubles for deliberately throwing their matches in order to have better draws in later rounds. The Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily published a series of articles criticizing judges and referees for “faulty judgment” in London, alleging that many people have been “selectively blind” to China’s genuine achievements.

Don’t be naïve about international rules.

In the wake of the match-fixing scandal, a Global Times op-ed written by Fudan University lecturer Daniel Shen criticized a “double standard” in Olympic rules. He said Chinese are “naïve” to believe that rules set by international bodies are all well-considered and fair, concluding that “if losing a few medals can wake China up from the blind obedience to international rules and facilitate debate…then such losses are worth it.”

While such sentiment was echoed throughout China’s blogosphere, Shen’s argument then veered along an unexpected tangent, one that could hold risks for the country’s foreign-policy makers. “In fact, outside the Olympic Games, China is also challenged by many other international issues such as the Diaoyu Islands dispute [a fractious row between China and Japan over maritime territory claimed by both] that will require a new understanding of international rules. Learning what rules the outside world really plays by should be one of the main goals of our participation in the London Games.”

Athletes are not machines.

Nationalistic sentiment hasn’t prevailed totally in conversations prompted by the London Games. There has also been growing domestic discussion about the state-run sports system, which utilizes massive government resources to produce top athletes and presumes to “own” them as a result. When Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, one of country’s few track stars, was hobbled by a leg injury in the first heat of the 110-meter hurdles, echoing his early exit due to injury from the 2008 Beijing Games, some speculated that Liu had felt compelled to compete despite his recurring injury because that was the only course available to him within China's straitjacketed winner-take-all sports system.

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To be sure, some Western allegations of brutality, doping, and inhumane treatment within the Chinese system are exaggerated. And parents of Chinese Olympians remain immensely proud of their childrens’ achievements. Yet some of them, along with some domestic media, are beginning to talk about the huge pressures and sacrifices involved. The father of Ye Shiwen, the swimming star, told The Daily Beast that “a lot of students give up halfway because their parents can’t take it—not because of the students [themselves]. It really depends on the stamina of the parents. It’s not easy.”

Ye had left home at the tender age of 11 when she was invited to join the Zhejiang provincial swim team. She lived in a dormitory, joining some 80 other swimmers; their practice sessions ran an exhausting five-and-a-half hours a day. She was allowed to return home only on Saturday afternoons, and had to report back to the team on Sunday. “If you take a break for one day, the next time you go in the pool you’ll be exhausted,” said her father, Y Qingsong. “You have to go into the water every day.”

Ye Shiwen jumped to the national team in 2010, and after that she seldom had a chance to come home, not even for Chinese New Year, the most important family holiday of the year. She was sent to Melbourne in 2010 to be trained by the famous Australian coach Ken Woods. That period of Australian training was less demanding physically, and Ye sat back and enjoyed her newfound freedom, her dad said. “She didn’t get great results her first time in Australia,” says her father. “She had no self-control.” He says the atmosphere in the West is much more relaxed than in China. “There, the coach will joke around, smile, and chat with you like a parent,” he says. “Here in China, the coaches are much more strict.”

Indeed, other athletes have undergone even more cloistered periods of training. When weightlifter Li Xueying won the women’s 58-kilogram class gold medal, her father choked up and blurted out that he wanted to see her immediately: “We haven’t seen each other for two years.” People also picked up on the fact that diving diva Wu Minxia learned only after winning the gold in female doubles diving that her mother had cancer and her maternal grandparents had passed away.

Stop obsessing over gold.

Along with such revelations about the human cost of Olympics training, Chinese citizens are also calling on their compatriots to give more respect and credit to silver and bronze medalists. “What kind of Chinese person with a brain would consider the number of gold medals China wins some huge deal?” read one Internet comment. “A country with a nationalized athletics program is really a country that raises athletes like livestock to train on your behalf…Not to mention, the nationalized athletics program is a brutal affair, dirty and corrupt behind the scenes.”

People were also disgusted by the outburst of media derision targeted at Zhou Jun, who made three failed snatch attempts in the women’s 53-kilogram weightlifting event—and was accused by some newspapers of “the most humiliating failure in the history of the national teams of women’s weightlifting.” On Weibo, a Wuhan-based professor lamented, “It was supposed to be a great honor to take part in the Games, but now failing to win a medal turns into humiliation, and the losers seem to have turned into sinners.” (At least one provincial newspaper that called her performance “a disgrace” later apologized to Zhou.)

Similar sentiments erupted after Chinese weightlifter Wu Jingbiao wept and apologized to his country, the national weightlifting team, and “all the people who care for me” when he failed to win gold in the men's 56-kilogram weightlifting event in London. (He did win the silver.) Video of his tearful regrets went viral—and prompted tens of thousands to send words of encouragement. “The disgrace is the country’s perverted obsession with the Olympics,” said Shen Chen. “The disgrace is the institutionalized pressure felt by those who come in second place to apologize...The disgrace is that we get off on conflating our dominance in sport with the strength and prosperity of our country.”

In light of overwhelming sympathy for athletes who fail to snag the gold, nationalistic commentators who’ve bridled at criticism of the national sports system tried to brush off the negative comments and take the high road. “There is indeed opposition against excessive worship of gold medals...[But] the Internet, especially Weibo, has amplified a few extreme voices, [including a few who] try to win attention by condemning patriotism. As long as China has an open public-opinion platform, such voices are bound to exist…We don’t have to care too much about a few grudge Internet posts,” stated an editorial in the Global Times, which often airs nationalistic views.

The closely watched competition between China and America for golds and total medals will no doubt intensify debate within the Middle Kingdom over whether, in the end, gold is not all that glitters.