Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Other Extreme

My last post clearly pointed out China's Olympic ambitions to be driven top down and not bottom up or at a grassroots level. Yet the Western media that intends to rain on China's parade goes to such an extreme it is embarrassing to agree with them on any point they make about this. The Telegraph carries this report on Liu Xiang, about the apparently brutal treatment he has received from the Chinese government in his training; and that the whole thing is pretense by the Chinese to establish national supremacy in sports. It goes on to say that "he was sent to his Olympic death by a regime that knew his injuries were terminal. " The readers' comments also betray this feeling.

It's time to ask a simple question: granted, the Chinese government hothouses its athletes. The West doesn't; rather Western athletes do well out of their initiative and then the Olympic committee gives them additional facilities to improve their skill. This is more humane.

However the media would have us believe that the Chinese athletes are running at the barrel of a gun. Is it possible for a sportsperson to achieve a medal in such a way? The Chinese gymnasts, underage or not, clearly loved their craft. Noone can force talent with intimidation. And any joy of sports will disappear with intimidation.

The other complaint that most people have is: the Chinese athletes are handpicked from kindergarten, and the rest of China is sports-unaware. It is true that the rest of China does not practise Western gymnastics or artistic diving which are truly Western sports. But every culture has its own games- India has kabbaddi and kho-kho, China has its own. These are not Olympic sports; so China, in its desire to dominate an event accepted rightly or wrongly as the showpiece of global athleticism, focuses on a few people to excel in these sports.

The critics ask how this benefits the rest of China. We do not know yet but we can guess. In the US, there are now more people out running or riding a bike because they are inspired by the Olympics. The ad on NBC urges them that it is time to at least 'begin'. Similarly China (and of course India though we haven't realized it) needs sporting heroes. Especially local heroes that people can look up to and feel inspired to exercise. The West does this more democractically. China does this by central planning.

How successful will this be? We do not know. Going by the experience of the erstwhile USSR, not much. After the communist government collapsed, Russian sports, especially Olympic sports, shrank to become a shadow of its former self. The medals had not inspired people enough to excel. Still they are a major sporting nation. And China seems to be the boldest of them all- they are treading grounds which the USSR or the old Eastern bloc never did. Hopefully this will spread inspiration among the people and the Chinese government will then find it easier to pick athletes who have come up from among the ranks of the common people.

While putting this in perspective, that the West hasn't done too badly, given its democracy and the level of health among its people, the media should quit whining about Chinese success and just urge its readers to get out there and play.

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