One of my favorite China hands, Professor Susan Brownell – quite possibly the most knowledgeable scholar out there on China’s sports culture and legacy – presented a paper last week at the University of Southern California on Beijing’s goals for the 2008 Olympics. Reproduced in part at the China Beat blog, she argues that there was no specific plan to use the Olympics as a public-relations tool for China to improve relations with the outside world; rather, it was Beijing’s goal to strengthen the confidence of its own people. The Telegraph (UK) quotes Brownell’s work in a piece titled “China didn’t care what you thought of the Beijing Olympics,” but having read the portion of Brownell’s paper that is available online, that feels like a harsher-than-necessary sound bite. In so many ways, China is just different than what many in the West expect it to be – a cultural difference that will keep China scholars busy for a long time to come. In any case, having been a witness to the 2008 Games myself, I can say that Brownell appears to hit the nail on the head, because it did feel after a while as though the Games were being put on for the benefit of China’s internal needs, not a need to look good to the rest of the world. Let the debates on that subject begin…
Bill Dwyre at the Los Angeles Times has written a great piece on one of the coaches who made Beijing memorable: U.S. men’s indoor volleyball head coach Hugh McCutcheon. He led the U.S. men to the gold medal – one of four medals and three golds that USA Volleyball took home from China – in the worst of circumstances: an apparently random attack at the Drum Tower (Gulou) tourist site in Beijing the day after the opening ceremony took the life of his father-in-law, Todd Bachman, and critically injured his mother-in-law, Barbara. McCutcheon has now taken the helm of the U.S. national women’s program for the London Olympics, following in the footsteps of Chinese legend “Jenny” Lang Ping, who led the U.S. indoor women’s team to the silver in Beijing. McCutcheon is by all accounts a class act, and it’s great to see the U.S. national women’s team in good hands for the next quadrennium.
Hugh McCutcheon of U.S. volleyball moves beyond Beijing – LA Times
Before the Olympics, the Chinese leadership agreed to sit down with representatives of Tibet’s government in exile to try to work out their differences. Now, word comes that the Dalai Lama himself feels the talks have reached a dead end. That’s frustrating to all who hope for better relations between China and Tibetans – and considering how much it became an issue in this Olympic year, with protests in Tibet that led to some calling for a boycott of the Olympics, it’s doubly difficult to swallow. We hope the Olympics are a catalyst for positive change in the world; it would have been gratifying to see the Chinese leadership try to figure out how to solve its differences with the Dalai Lama so that the cultures could coexist peacefully.
As I said…frustrating.
I’ve been blogging over at Sports Illustrated’s FanNation site for the last few months and I’ve checked in over here a bit as well, something I’ll be doing more of in the weeks and months to come. So much of the China-related sports news has been political in the past month that it’s been tough to balance everything out – how much time to spend digesting and commenting on the political issues, while trying to remember that we’re getting ready for a sporting event, one that will be the highlight of most of the athletes’ competitive careers.
This week at FanNation I’ve posted entries on the contrasting news of the week (the torch in Hong Kong, to a mostly supportive reception; contrasted with the Tibet-China talks coming up this weekend and the criticism Beijing continues to dole out to the Tibetan side); Yao Ming’s recovery and his prognosis for the Olympics (quick note: it’s all good); and an update on the Olympic men’s basketball tournament. Check it all out here.
No doubt you’ve noticed the silence on the blog this past month…partly it’s because accessing the blog during my December trip to Beijing was more than challenging (slow Internet connections, etc.), and partly because I’ve been invited to blog on the Beijing Olympics for Sports Illustrated’s FanNation site. The Beijing Olympics Blog was launched in early December and I’ll be blogging regularly there from now until the Olympics. I’ll also post frequently here, especially with links to articles that may not be specifically Olympics-related, so that Chinese sports fans can keep up with the latest news. In the meantime I invite you to check out the Beijing Olympics Blog. Just 216 days to go until the Opening Ceremony…
Beijing Olympics Blog at SI.com’s FanNation
A smattering of news from around the China sports world today:
Yi’s exit leaves Chinese hoops floundering (Reuters, via Guardian Unlimited)
Track and Field: What are the Chinese medal prospects for Beijing? (IAAF.org)
China-born Li named top US athletics coach for guiding Lagat (AFP) [Editor's note: Bernard Lagat's double gold medal in the 1500 and 5000 meter races at this year's world championships were astonishing. Lagat called James Li, his coach, a "technical genius" for planning the strategy that allowed Lagat, a naturalized Kenyan-born American, to win two hot, humid, tactical races in the pressure of a world championship event. My personal sports highlight of the year.]
Adidas taps punch-bag art, Muhammad Ali to spread Olympic fever (Bloomberg.com)
China to host convention on sport science, August 1-5, 2008 (Xinhuanet)
Badminton: China on track for Olympics despite poor results – coach (Guardian UK)
Curling (yes, curling)
Chinese curling attracts younger crowd (China Daily)
A new article from China Daily – and a really, really close re-reading of the article linked to here on Friday from Reuters – demonstrates that the Liu Xiang/achievements-meaningless-without-Beijing-gold news report may not have been based on any new information, just (perhaps – conjecture on my part) a desire to keep Liu’s name in the sports pages as he goes into seclusion for winter training.
Coach: Hurdler Liu has yet to reach full potential (China Daily)
The aforementioned article includes the full quote from Sun Haiping, Liu Xiang’s coach: “”Officials from the State General Administration of Sports once told us if Liu could not win a gold in Beijing, all of his previous achievements would become meaningless.”
Okay, that’s still a huge amount of pressure in my book. But it doesn’t sound like Liu was given a text message about the matter last week from Chinese officials – only that “once” Liu and/or Sun were told what the gold medal would mean to China.
It’s still overstating the case to suggest his past results have no meaning, no matter how or when the comment was relayed to Liu, and it’s still too much pressure for a young man who appears to have no discernable life outside of sport because he’s been put so high on a pedestal in Chinese society that he can’t do anything without attracting attention to himself. But it’s a little less sinister-feeling than when the first reports of this comment came out last week, in my opinion.
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.
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