International sporting competition and jingoism are as inseparable as Amy Winehouse and eyeliner. In either case, the results can be quite scary. Most infamously, the 1936 Berlin Olympics served as a propaganda vehicle for the National Socialist's idea of Aryan supremacy. Jesse Owens' track and field achievements may have punctured that idea, but, lest anyone forget, the Germans did win the most medals in that event. 72 years later, we have another Olympic host country emerging--or more correctly speaking, re-emerging--on the global scene in the PRC. Although its co-opted, sold-out, and rather bourgeois brand of Leninist-Marxism is not perceived to be a threatening alternative political-economic system, China still sees the Olympics as a coming out party that should be ushered in with a bevy of medals, preferably those of the yellow-tinged variety.
A few weeks ago, I came across a feature by the New York Times on the awe-inspiring efforts of the Chinese national team to put together a world class group of rowers. Unlike, say, table tennis, China does not have a long, distinguished history in rowing. (Famously, China even mounted a reality show to attract performers to this sport.) However, the powers-that-be in China's vast sports training apparatus decided to train athletes hard in this area for there are many medals on offer, giving the PRC a good chance to run up their medal tally in Beijing. I found it pretty interesting and thought nothing more about it until the NYT came up with another two articles on Chinese athletes being forced to train despite the possibility of incurring long-term injuries and being unable to quit under official pressure. While I do understand that interest ought to be high in the run-up to the Olympics, these articles are getting repetitive and make very similar points:
(1) The Beijing Olympics will showcase China's growing sporting prowess to complement its increasing economic clout;
(2) The PRC has spared nothing in athletic selection, training, facilities, and coaching to ensure that it stands a good chance of topping the medal league tables in Beijing 2008;
(3) Youngsters from the provinces showing athletic promise have been separated from their parents beginning at a very young age to train in isolation;
(4) The uni-dimensional focus of Chinese sporting officials on winning at all costs has not allowed these athletes to lead normal lives;
(5) Consequently, these athletes are torn between demonstrating national pride in their sporting achievements and resenting the normalcy which has been taken from them;
(6) Having done little other than train, these athletes are ill-equipped for life after their sporting careers are over;
(7) Promises of fame and fortune in the event of victory makes athletes from families of modest means persist despite the undeniably harsh training regimen;
(8) Western competitors who have been blown away by the Chinese in international competition have resorted to accusations of doping.
Where have we heard this before? A robotic, nearly superhuman man-machine is used for propaganda purposes to instill fear into the hearts of competitors the world over. If it sounds like a hackneyed plot for a Sylvester Stallone movie, well, that's because it's already been the plot to such a movie. Rocky IV was released in 1985 at a time when Reaganite anti-Soviet rhetoric was at a fever pitch, sandwiched somewhere between the "evil empire" and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speeches. Some of you may recall that He-Man himself, Dolph Lundgren, played Ivan Drago, the Russian heavyweight killing machine. Literally, he killed off Carl Weathers playing ex-champ Apollo Creed in an exhibition boxing match, compelling Rocky Balboa to avenge the death of his longtime friend and ring rival. Nevermind that the Swede Lundgren didn't look very Russian, nor did his screen wife Ludmilla played by Brigitte Nielsen [Danish!]--but you must be extremely willing to suspend disbelief while watching this movie. Yes, Rocky beat the tar out of the Soviet killing machine by movie's end, though that was a foregone conclusion from outset.
Has the NYT reprised the role of Sylvester Stallone in creating a stereotypical image of Chinese instead of Soviet athletes with this batch of articles? It certainly seems so to me: "Heck, we Americans may not be as all-out competitive as the Chinese, but we treat our athletes like humans and they have real lives which will continue long after the Games are over." Just as there is trade protectionism, what we have here may be an incipient brand of, er, athletic protectionism. Yo Adrienne, those Chinese rowers sure are fast...