China’s Olympics hysteria

The machinery in China established to produce gold medals in The Olympics is ruthless, and the Chinese people are grappling with the positive and negative effects of this system.

But the crankiness back home could increase in coming days as the Olympic Games heads into events such as track and field, where China hasn’t traditionally been strong. Despite tremendous pride in China’s slim lead over the U.S., the success has sparked debate over the pressure China’s results-driven sports system puts on winning.

That system picks athletes at young ages, grooming them for Olympic gold at national training centers, often far away from their families. Qin, the diver, said he started training at age six. “Sometimes, I get to see (my family) every other year. If the competition schedule is not that tight, maybe sometimes I can spend a whole week with my parents in a year,” he said.

“Every athlete has some pressure,” Qin said. “If you want to be really good, then you have to be able to hold that pressure to perform.”

Last week, 23-year-old weightlifter Wu Jingbiao publicly apologized, bowing in front of the television cameras, for bringing home a silver, not gold, medal. “I feel terribly sorry for my country, China’s weightlifting team and everyone that supports me,” Wu said, fighting back tears. That came after some Chinese newspapers referred to 17-year-old Chinese female weightlifter Zhou Jun as one of the country’s greatest failures.

“It is not the barbell that overwhelmed Wu, but a world of difference in terms of treatment toward gold medal winner and that of silver medal,” said the Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper in China’s southern Guangdong province.

An editorial written this week in the state-run China Youth Daily newspaper called for change, saying leaders have hammered hard for medals in pursuit of global recognition that could have been earned in other, more socially beneficial ways. “Even from the standpoint of sports fans, we are more concerned with public affairs that affect our happiness,” the China Youth Daily editorial said.

State-run newspapers have taken the opposite approach, arguing that any criticism of the state’s sports system is criticism of the state itself.

In many ways this debate is a good thing for Chinese culture. It will be interesting to see how this debate evolves.

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