“I’m Addicted to the Olympics” - China

Hair style for Beijing olympicsChina is sports crazy. You only had to read stories in the newspaper every day during the recent FIFA World Cup in Brazil to see what lengths Chinese sports fans would go to enjoy a tournament that their country was not even participating in. Gambling away life savings, sleep deprivation, death from exhaustion (the games were all between midnight and dawn), and Chinese men ignoring their wife AND their mistress; it was a pretty tough few weeks for some.
But despite all that silliness, the premiere sporting tournament for China still remains the Summer Olympics. The Chinese Olympic spirit seems to be everywhere and has a very powerful effect on nationalism, education, and identity for contemporary China.
Li Ning
China’s Olympic story begins only in the 1980s. Prior to this decade China refused to participate because the IOC recognized Taiwan’s participation at the games. Only when Taiwan was cut out did China decided to send a delegation to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. It is at these games that one of contemporary China’s national heroes made his debut: Li Ning.
Most would know the name Li Ning as a sportswear chain in China with a vague Nike/Adidas store feel to them. They are owned by the aforementioned Li Ning nicknamed ‘The Prince of Gymnastics’ (体操王). At the 1984 games Li won 6 medals including 3 gold for gymnastic events and made himself an icon of China’s international sporting prowess.
Li would go on to win no more Olympic medals and retired in 1988 but has made himself a nice little bundle of money selling shoes and 中国 tracksuits. Good for him. He was even the one who got to light the Olympic flame at the 2008 games in Beijing. He is fondly remembered as a winner for China and his reputation rests on this important quality. Olympic gold winners are national heroes that make the nation great. Since Li Ning, China has taken the role of producing national Olympic heroes very seriously.
China Olympics Schools
Chinese parents can have their children at the age of about five taken to a special sports school where their knees with be tested. For what you ask? Well if they “pass” the test, congratulations their child will now spend the rest of their childhood being trained to be a gold medal winning Olympic badminton player. And that’s the catch you better be a gold medal winner or else!
Or course there are other events your children can be selected for, regardless these sport schools based on a Soviet model take children from their parents to be trained at winning gold and I guess glory for Mother China. These “schools” however teach only the basic amount of non-athletic education and focus the child on training and winning. Once your career as an athlete is over by approximately age 35 (or even younger depending on the sport) you look forward to a life or being a coach or, well, that’s about it; you weren’t allowed to learn any other skills.
Controversy arose at the 2012 London Olympics when a Chinese diver named Wu Minxia was only told of the death of her beloved grandfather and her mother years earlier once she had won 3 gold medals for China. Her father (a term which is quite questionable in this situation) called it a necessary “white lie” because to tell her earlier would have disturbed her diving career and interfered with her chances of winning gold for her country.
This story was of great interest to China’s netizens who thankfully condemned winning gold medals at any cost as abhorrent. Unfortunately the attitude of winning gold as the most important thing ever exists in the first place and is drilled into everyone especially at these sport schools. Parents begin to see their children as a meal ticket they can use to get money from.
If the athlete wins gold they become a national hero, if they fail the results can be equally spectacular but in the opposite way. World class hurdler Liu Xiang prior to the 2012 London Olympics was incredibly famous in China. His face was everywhere endorsing every product, the ones that Korean actor seems to do now, but back then, Liu’s face greeted you at every bus stop and subway station. Hurdles were supposed to be an easy gold for China until Liu Xiang pulled his Achilles tendon on the first hurdle of his first heat. The fail was so traumatic CCTV cut the feed on live TV. No one talks about Liu Xiang anymore.  
Remembering 2008
Memories of the 2008 Beijing Olympics are still very potent in China. You can still find a migrant worker trying to sell you a bird’s nest stadium keychain around the Olympic Park in Beijing without looking very hard. For China the 2008 Olympic Games are considered a significant event in Chinese history which is quite phenomenal considering the length of Chinese history and the sort of stuff that happened that didn’t involve waving a ribbon around in a leotard.
Beijing 2008 was seen or probably more acutely, created to be seen, as the moment when China re-emerged into the world as an equal of the great nations. Sounds very dramatic but for China being seen as one of the big kids is important to its sense of self as a nation.
Chinese history is very heavily slanted towards China as the abused nation of the world who was held down by jealous foreign powers for over a century until the communists took power and started making people proud to be Chinese again. The Olympics was built up as something that important countries host and winning gold medals is something only important countries can do. For this reason memories of the Olympics in Beijing are never far away for you. Mascots still appear on the occasional community fence and building proudly display what event they hosted.
The Olympics in 2008 were also a rare moment of increased freedom since the late eighties. Facebook wasn’t banned back then, while this mattered little to Chinese people the wider point was the internet and press restrictions were for a month relieved like no other time since. The skies were a shade of blue not seen since, in fact the skies of 2008 are now used as a benchmark of today’s blue skies. “Beijing’s skies are a color not seen since the Olympics”.
The Olympics are for many a big waste of time and money, some have little interest in which juiced up, corporate spokesman wins a medal at something that happens every 4 years (every 2 if you count the Winter Olympics). But for China the Olympics is a national addiction because it ties into their conception of themselves as part of the cool gang of winners in the world. Through the Olympics they get their heroes, and they get their history of triumphs over failures, and they get to be proud of something against the rest of us who often too quickly dismiss their achievements. The question of whether China might be more content with itself without this addiction is still open for debate but for now China is an Olympic junky and until it admits that fact, there is nothing we can do to help them.


 In-Depth-China      CSA-blog



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