The politics of the Olympics, more unfounded unfair criticisms

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.

10 thoughts on “The politics of the Olympics, more unfounded unfair criticisms

  1. @YinYang

    DaWang,

    I completely agree with your sentiments about certain sports not being suitable as Olympic/international sports. You hit the nail on the head with swimming, but perhaps the equestrian events are even more exclusive?

    More suitable sports for international competition would be those which don’t require specific physical characteristics in the athletes, are globally popular, cheap and accessible to all.

    Football is a good example of this. You get world class players of all shapes and sizes: from Maradonna to Drogba. Furthermore, it’s a sport not dominated by the richest countries (Brazil have won it the most times and Spain are current champions). And, finally, it’s globally popular.

  2. @YinYang

    I watched some of the badminton games in question the other day and I watched GB compete in the cycling. I asked my dad what he thought about the badminton players, and he said that they should have been disqualified. I then asked him about the GB cyclist who had admitted to deliberately crashing to get a restart. What did my dad do? He hesitated, stroked his chin, and then hesitated some more. That got me thinking. He did eventually answer, but before I tell you what he said, let me first digress…

    Let me propose a hypothetical situation:

    Nation A and Nation B are competing in two identical team finals (final 1 and final 2).
    A random sample of 200 people are taken from each nation and sent off to a hotel to watch the finals in isolation.
    100 from Nation A watch final 1 in isolation, 100 from Nation B watch final 1 in isolation etc.

    In final 1, Nation A wins. In final 2, Nation B wins. The decisions are final.
    However, replays show that both winning teams cheated!

    Before the supporters hear of the other results or speak to the other supporters a questionnaire to record their views is conducted and averages are calculated.

    Do you think the views of the 100 people from Nation A who watched their team win in final 1 would be different from the views of the 100 people from Nation B who watched their team win in final 2?
    How about the views of the losers?

    Now, imagine this hypothetical situation involving two real nations; they allies or adversaries, they can be rich or poor, big or small. Or go one step further and try this with two cities you know, or two towns! Or try something really different and try it with right-handed people versus left-handed people, or big-enders versus little-enders (See: Gulliver’s Travels).

    I don’t mean to be cynical, I think this is cause for celebration. Because, when you take a step back from things like the Olympics, you might just see that all the people around the world have more in common (both good and bad) than we realise.

    Oh, and my dad agreed with me that the British cyclists should have been disqualified.

    Thanks for reading, enjoy the rest of the games!

  3. Chinese athletes are state sponsored because no other party can do it at this moment. Chinese are just barely getting wealthy(some of them anyway) while the central and western parts of china are still dirt poor. Who doubts that despite limited US gov funding (which im sure is not as little as most think – think about college and school funding towards sports and PE), american athletes are more well funded than all but a handful of countries. Corporate sponsorships, charities, collegiate level sports, massive professional sports support industries, cuttig edge r and d and medical facilities…

    And about swimming, in many areas in he US, every other house has a swimming pool.

    Talk about unfair advantages. And the US media can only report on allegeded unfairness on the part developing countries like china. The level of lack of humility, self introspection, hypocrisy and downright maliciousness is unfanthomable.

  4. Holy caw, speaking of the NYT and Andrew Jacobs. He’s weighed in too, here, and apparently much more clever this time around than the last article of his I bothered to read. In this article, he writes:

    Even if Olympic officials pronounced Ye clean, the innuendo — blithely repeated earlier this week by sports commentators, coaches and swimmers — snowballed into a gargantuan national insult. And the official news media, in what was clearly an orchestrated campaign, responded in kind.

    Remember, it’s papers like the NYT, BBC, and other American and British media who propagandize the false accusations and giving people like Leonard credence that caused the controversy in the first place. The people repeating are him and his employer!

    Don’t let them off the hook with such nonsense narrative.

    Also, here is another lie. He is taking Chinese doctor, Chen’s interview, out of context. Jacobs wrote:

    The former head of the Chinese Olympics medical team lobbed a few incendiary insults of his own, accusing Michael Phelps and other American athletes of doping their way to Olympic glory. “The Americans have made many extraordinary performances but, without evidence, we have kept silent,” the doctor, Chen Zhanghao, told an Australian newspaper.

    Remember, Chen was responding to Leonard. He was using Phelps to illustrate how preposterous Leonard’s accusations were.

    This is not lobbying incendiary insults at Phelps for the sake of making racist remarks.

    NYT, what a piece of work.

  5. i’ve long since given up on the NYT as a credible source, yinyang.
    y’see, the West is going through the classic signs of shock/insecurity. First there was Denial when all the Western presses jumped on baseless allegations by the American coach, and then there were attempts to insinute that ‘even if there’s no proof, the Chinese are guilty anyway because they’re EVIL’ yadayadayada.

    Finally we come to this piece by the HuffPost: tacit and grudging acceptance by saying ‘oh it wasn’t worth that much anyway’ which is BS because if it didn’t matter, thenwhy the massive furore and media circus?
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christina-patterson/ye-shiwen-chinese-swimmer_b_1732741.html
    “price of success too high”? stop giving excuses, every country is capable of winning gold, and just because China is now muscling in on Olympic areas like Swimming which the US traditionally dominates…well that’s just tough shit isnt it?

  6. The sport has been hobbled by old school officials who are unable to come up with sensible regulations governing the game. Worse, many officials especially from certain S E Asian badminton federations have tried to undermine advancements in the sport due to dirty politicking. Enough said. Lin Dan has won the Olympic men’s singles gold. Read about it at http://www.scribd.com/doc/102080184 for the details.

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