Sunday, June 1, 2008

One gold equals 1,000 silvers

Never mind that gold and silver are often separated by hundredths of a second. Chinese statistics reflect adherence to this depressing credo. In the 2004 Summer Olympics, the USA reigned with 102 medals. China was a distant third with 63. Gold told a different story. China was second with 32, four behind the United States. “Silver? It means nothing here; you might as well finish last,” says former Soviet coach Igor Grinko. “Coaches like me come, help them win gold medals, or we are fired.”

As China prepares its debut as Olympic host, it has ramped up its effort to win gold. The strategy is to focus on sports that offer many opportunities for gold, like rowing. Rowing. Crew. Long a Chinese tradition, right? No, of course not. But the sport offers 14 separate events, 14 chances for gold, unlike basketball or volleyball -- sports that have a rightful place in Chinese culture -- that offer only 1 or 2.

In China, very young children are evaluated for potential athletic prowess and shipped off to distant locales to train, train, train. Seven days a week for years, separated from family and community, they are cogs in the Chinese wheel. They head out every morning, shoulders slumped, exhausted, unmotivated, to play a sport that is meaningless to them. Great financial gain at one end, prison (for doping) at the other end, they work toward a predestined fate.

I am sure that the Chinese will fare well in Beijing. They have to. But the glory will be reserved for the athletes that defy fate. Just as computers will never outshine humanity's best and brightest, so the Chinese machine will fall short. The 1980 Miracle on Ice -- the US hockey team that defeated Cold War Russia to go on to win the gold -- was not about raw talent, or national financial support, or intense training regimens. The Miracle on Ice was about the human spirit, about love of sport, reverence for tradition, synergy above all else.

Passion defies logic. Love, dedication and athletic brilliance will always trump mechanization. Even when it wears a human skin.

I can not wait to see the US kick China's autocratic ass on its home turf.


Jacques Poirier said...

Where did you get that great photo!?! I don't know, Mango, about the tone and substance of your blog. The Chinese sports federations are very dynamic with literaly millions of web sites.Sports and National Pride are very big in China. To think that these helpless ants go into the fight to serve their gargantuan Queen is a fabricated anti-communist myth.The chinese are not very different from us and other people of the world: some soak up steroids to play, some play for money, some play for glory, some play for fun, some watch others play, some don't care, and some believe everything they hear. After visiting north and south China, I realized that our perception of their athletes is as weirdly deformed as the body of US sprinter Marion Jones. Let's stop cartooning the Chinese and look at the reality of their newly-found pride and patriotism.

b said...

I wondered the same thing that Jacques did. My son lives in China and I have visited that country twice in the last couple of years for a lengthy period of time. I have found that indeed they are very much like us. I am tempted to say the same as us. There are, like in the USA, flaws in their lives and athletes probably behave themselves much like ours. As strange as it seems, I felt a certain pride in them for the accomplishments they have made.


Just a thought from me.

Marie Walden said...

Jacques and B, I think sometimes I attempt to be provocative without being completely genuine. I was writing about the way China treats its athletes. But who am I to judge? Seriously. Even in my small neck of the woods, we start our children playing sports while still in preschool, because we hope that they'll have an edge later on.

In China, the government decides who has Olympic potential, and then throws its full support toward the goal. But we're not that different, are we? In the US, it's the children of wealthy parents who are able to pursue Olympic glory. No, not always. But often enough.

Still, when the smoke clears, and the coaches, sponsors, trainers are on the sidelines, the athlete endeavors alone. Sport is the great equalizer. That, to me, is its beauty and its importance.