Go, Teams! Learning The Drill In China

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 6, 2008

BEIJING -- When the Summer Olympics open to great fanfare in August, an estimated 500,000 foreign tourists will be here rooting for their home teams. The Chinese will be cheering, too. They've been trained for it.

In a decision that is highly unusual by Olympic standards, the Chinese government has trained hundreds of thousands of official cheerleaders. Most are former state employees drafted out of retirement. They have been taught when to roar their approval and why not to boo other teams, especially those from onetime enemy countries. They will be assigned to events based partly on the decibel levels desired, organizers say.

Athens and Turin, Italy, host cities in 2004 and 2006, each had small teams of Olympic cheerleaders, controversial for their bikinis and their lack of rhythm, respectively. But China's effort is different in scope and ambition. The cheerleaders here, numbering more than 210,000 and growing, are a powerful symbol of how this country wants to be perceived by the rest of the world: united, strong and of one voice.

Visitors to Beijing should not expect to see armies of Chinese 20-somethings in communist-red tights. The cheerleaders are more likely to look like a sorority of grandmothers, wearing matching T-shirts and equipped with props such as flags, handkerchiefs and "cheering sticks," inflatable, oblong plastic balloons that generate thunderous applause.

"Higher, higher! Faster, faster! Stronger, stronger!" hundreds of state workers and retirees chanted in deafening unison at a recent practice session, as they slammed the balloons together in neatly choreographed steps.

In some ways, it's a scene straight out of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the crusade against intellectuals that used mass songs, "model operas" and "loyalty dances" to rally ordinary citizens and whip up support for the Communist Party. Late last year, a cheering competition was held to improve the "standardization" of the cheering teams and to motivate team members.

According to the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, training sessions for cheerleaders serve an important purpose.

"The Chinese don't know very much about baseball, archery, handball or water polo. Part of this is an exercise to teach organized cheering that can be used at events they have no experience at," said Jeff Ruffolo, a spokesman for the committee.

"This also goes hand in hand with the etiquette program," Ruffolo added, referring to a citywide campaign to get Beijing residents to stop cutting in line, spitting and booing. "It's to remind people that it's great to have fun but it's also important to be an example to your capital and your nation."

The Beijing Federation of Trade Unions is organizing retirees, government employees, white-collar office workers and even members of the army into a cheering team, the largest being assembled. Across the capital, women's associations and youth groups are also helping recruit participants. Middle schools have been partnered with schools in cities overseas -- Tokyo and Manchester, England, for example -- and students will wear the national colors of whichever country they are assigned to cheer.

To inspire the cheerleaders, team posters will use national colors and calligraphy "to demonstrate the enthusiastic spirit of the people," according to organizers.

China's political culture places a unique emphasis on group performance. It's an emphasis that starts as early as kindergarten, dominates the work lives of state employees and is used to demonstrate collective passion where it might otherwise not exist. To many Olympic visitors, the impulse to script and stage-manage everything might seem odd. But China has long emphasized ceremony and propriety.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company