One of my favorite Western reporters in China is Rob Schmitz of the Marketplace program from American Public Media. (In contrast to propagandist variety like Andrew Jacobs who once wrote for the New York Times that China was banning the jasmine flower.) Today, I must take exception to a narrative he offered about Yang Yu and Wang Xiaoli for being disqualified from throwing matches as a sign the Chinese government is hellbent on getting gold medals. The best explanation there is that the badminton rules are designed such that better players can throw matches to influence which opponents they are paired against in subsequent rounds to up their chances at winning ultimately. See Scott Page and Simon Wilkie’s article, “Bad(minton) by Design,” published today at the Harvard Business Review.
I don’t dispute the fact that the Chinese government (and society as whole) is eager to have her athletes win more gold medals. One of the criticisms on Weibo frequently laid against the Chinese media in their London 2012 coverage is their predominant interest in gold medalists. But to say that there is fanatical pursuit of gold by the Chinese government without offering the same criticism against the U.S. government (or U.S. society in general) in the same breath is unfair.
In this China Daily U.S. talk, columnist Chen Weihua explained, for a long time, Westerners and the Japanese viewed the Chinese as the sick man of Asia. When China first joined the Olympics, they were completely shut out. It was a huge embarrassment.
Olympic success matters and every country try their best to win as many medal as possible. Another way to look at competition between nations is soccer. Europeans even kill one another over their soccer matches!
China being extremely poor, of course her Olympics program must be state sponsored. Who is going to build swimming pools and subsidize the training if the government doesn’t? Who is going to build the gym and facilities for the gymnasts? Who is going to pay for coaches and lessons?
One may point to the fact that the American government need not put in as much effort. Sure. That is because American society can train their athletes without as much government intervention. One of my friends pay for her daughter to take private gymnastic lessons since she was 3. At age 7, she trains 3 hours 3 times each week. That does not even include time at competitions. I would argue this passion is rampant across America. (Note, I could have used the word ‘obsession’ in place of ‘passion,’ so do you see how the narrative works with different emotive words used?)
I turned on my TV earlier today. If I was an alien, I could have sworn that the American Olympics team were made up only of Phelps, Lochte, and Gabby Douglas.
Let’s look at Phelps. Incredible swimmer with 17 gold medals! For most Olympics athletes who train their whole life, their shot is likely only 1 gold medal. Does that mean Phelps is 17x more extraordinary than these other Olympians?
Since the Marketplace article mixes Olympics with politics, then I must use this opportunity to talk about American politics when it comes to the Olympics.
Has anyone wondered why there are so many swimming events? How about adding a left-handed table tennis event? How about having 20 Chinese wushu events in the Olympics? So, there is a rationale for how sports are selected and become official events. Why is swimming in there while most of the world’s poor are not able to afford swimming pools? Swimming as a sport is only accessible to rich countries. Aficans are shut out. Indians are shut out. Chinese have been shut out until the government poured resources into this area. Is having so many medals in swimming fair?
So, what does it say about NBC or the United States when they spend inordinate amount of time on Phelps and Lochte or promoting certain sports in the Olympics?
I personally don’t have qualms with that. These are incredible athletes. I think the world in general are not sour grapes. They don’t complain about Americans celebrating their winners. Nor do they accuse Phelps of doping, unlike the sour grapes in Britain and America in defaming Ye Shiwen.
CCTV actually does a much better job in covering London2012 than NBC. NBC’s focus is predominantly on the American gold medal events. China’s CCTV in fact has many channels dedicated to the Olympics. Chen Weihua above explained this phenomenon about the 2008 Olympics too.
The Chinese are exposed much more to foreign athletes than Americans are through NBC’s coverage. CCTV shows as much of Chinese athletes in totality as possible. I witnessed it myself while in China few days ago. So, Schmitz’s report that CCTV focuses much more on the Chinese, while generally true, doesn’t say how egregious NBC is in that respect. Sure, two ‘wrongs’ doesn’t make a right. But, since we are criticizing, we should have a basis for comparison.
What I oppose in the Marketplace story is that it takes a fairly sad affair (don’t forget, Yang Yu and Wang Xiaoli ranked among top in the world) and turns it into something to vilify the Chinese government with.
The truth is an unfortunate organization of the badminton sport itself which (and sure, through some unsportsmanlike conduct of these athletes themselves too), has caused 8 world-class athletes to have their years of hardship poured down the drain.
Our world needs more humility, not unfounded unfair criticisms.