It’s always wise to wait a few days when commenting on news reports coming out of China, especially when it involves scandal or strongly-worded exhortations…Still, the news that pressure is raining down on Liu Xiang to win gold next August comes during this American Thanksgiving season with a profound sense of too much, too soon – and, honestly, unnecessary. Reuters reports that Liu has been informed that his past results – and by “results,” we’re talking an Olympic gold medal and world-record-tying performance (2004), individual world record (2006), and world championship (2007) – will be “meaningless” if he doesn’t win Olympic gold next year.
On some other page of some other Chinese newspaper, there’s surely a note or two about how determined China is to make this a “drug-free” Olympics. And again, I ask – can’t senior sports officials in China (or any major Olympic country, for that matter) see the inherent contradiction in putting unreal pressure on a young person to win, then insisting that their athletes will be drug-free? Speculation by those who know Marion Jones well has led to an understanding that she may well have chosen to dope before Sydney because she’d set herself such a gargantuan goal of five Olympic gold medals and was terrified of coming up short. Nobody but her of course knows for sure, but it seems clear that negating all of the past results of an extraordinary athlete like Liu and putting this huge pressure on him to succeed makes the Olympics feel less like a celebration and more like a firing squad.
Liu is a good person and an excellent athlete who is a joy to watch. He shouldn’t be put through this kind of meaningless pressure. For him and for all of the athletes in China and around the world who are preparing to compete, the Olympics should be about the best of competition – not the worst of pressure for meaningless national bragging rights.