Monday, August 18, 2008

Scary China: Not So Scary After All

Okay, I admit it. I’ve seen the Chinese as formidable opponents ever since I went to college in Tokyo with a bunch of kids from Hong Kong and Taiwan. It wasn’t just that these guys and gals were smart. They were. But they had this competitive, entrepreneurial spirit that drove them to excel at everything they touched. These weren’t the Chairman Mao Chinese, mind you, but all last week in Beijing, I kept seeing the same darn thing: win, win, win. But I really got worried this morning when I read what the Chinese Olympic fans were saying when they lost.

According to this New York Times article, Liu Xiang was the first Chinese guy to win a track and field gold medal in the 110 hurdles in 2004. He had become a national hero, an icon, a demi-god. But before Liu could compete in 2008, he injured both his hamstring and his Achilles’ tendon. The Chinese response startled me.

“It is a very hard moment for all of us,” Sun [Liu’s coach] said.
Well, wait. It's not really about ALL of you, is it?

I’m very disappointed, very disappointed,” said Wang Jifei, a reporter with The Chengdu Economic Daily. “Liu Xiang is our, you know, national hero. But right now he has failed.”
Failed? I don’t think I’ve heard the word “failure” applied to an injured athlete before ... have I?

“Everybody has been waiting for such a long time. We hold very high expectations. But I think people understand,” said a fan.
Maybe I’m wrong, but to me that sounds a lot like, “I think people forgive.”

Another fan said, “What a regret. But he’s injured and that happens to everybody. An American got hurt, too. There must be something wrong with the track. Maybe it’s just unlucky.”
What, pray tell, does an American getting hurt have to do with this?

And, finally, this from an eight-year old. “I’m not mad at him … I’m sure he’ll recover very soon and grab another championship in the future.”
Well, what if he doesn't recover in the future? Will you be mad at him then?

I'm not getting this attitude at all. I simply don't understand the “collective” system that apparently characterizes current Chinese thinking to the point that an injured sports figure is owned by one and all.

Where’s the aroma (and magnificence) of individual achievement, of the lonely runner on the hill, doing it for him or herself against all odds (with no “collective” support)? That’s the story I want to hear. That's what thrills the American me. Instead, I conjure up images of the Chinese government scouring the hillside for the thousands out of 1.5 billion who have a gift, followed by the years of training camps that discard anyone who sniffs of possible failure along the way. Thrown away children. Shattered souls. Human wreckage. Everybody keeps talking about how Chinese athletes don’t smile. Why would they?

Do I exaggerate? I think not. How else could a single country have so dramatically increased their medal take (they already have 40 percent more medals in 2008 than in 2004 – forty percent!!) And it’s only been four years!

Unless we're dealing with a super human race (wait, the Germans already tried that...) some serious pushing has been going down. Only a ruthless “collective” push can explain this achievement, and the major collective disappointment in poor Liu Xiang illustrates it. The real wonder is that any athlete from the United States – let alone Romania or Jamaica -- can beat the entire Chinese government at any game. But there’s a saving grace…

I was getting very depressed until D. pointed me to an article a few days earlier [China Loves Its Soccer. Its Team? Don’t Ask]. Here’s something about Chinese sports I can relate to. Here’s a familiar human reaction, thank God, to losing at a sport when your team can’t seem to win no matter what. Apparently, Chinese soccer fans are not only rabid; they’re furious. So why is this good news? Because they are blaming the system -- the coaches, the players, the corruption, the whole stinking mess. How human, how divine!

It's money, money, money – decadence, decadence, decadence – that the Chinese are blaming for the soccer’s team’s failure (in other words, capitalism). Reportedly, the Chinese soccer team (members of which make beaucoup bucks, just like soccer players do everywhere else in the world) doesn’t care enough about winning, say the fans. They’re lazy and the system is corrupt. Big money is the problem, complain observers, with many players having been caught with drugs and prostitutes (hey, so what else is new?).

Bottomline: These Chinese super-humans are human after all. Gifted, competitive, smart, yes – but human. Get the enforcers out of the way, give ‘em a little compensation, toss 'em a little STUFF, and watch the Chinese lock-step falter. And that's a good thing.

We simply cannot have human beings jumping over hurdles with puffy Achilles. That’s the work of machines. And we definitely can't have collective thinking, because then we don't have individual responsibility. Besides, it's just not any fun.

No comments: