Olympic Spirit

Rah-Rah Diplomacy: Win or Lose, Chinese Are a Cheerful Bunch

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 11, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 10 -- For months, Olympic officials here fretted about Chinese fans. The fans might boo athletes from countries perceived as unfriendly to China, or maybe they won't know when to cheer, the government feared. Officials went so far as to draft 210,000 retired state employees and teach them the right way to hoot and holler.

But Chinese officials needn't have worried.

At Sunday night's U.S.-China men's basketball game, the host country's fans cheered wildly for both teams. They whooped it up when Yao Ming, the towering Houston Rockets center who is China's pride and joy, hit an opening three-point shot. And they thundered applause when Kobe Bryant threw down a two-handed windmill jam during layup drills and later when he was introduced at the beginning of the game.

"We're cheering for both countries because China welcomes the U.S.," said Qin Li, 40, a housewife jumping up and down in her seat next to her husband and son.

The Chinese, it turns out, are going wild over the Games. Through two days of full competition in Beijing, Chinese spectators have displayed just the sort of enthusiasm that officials hoped to see -- and virtually none of the ugly nationalism that has characterized other sporting events between China and former foes, such as Japan.

Chinese fans are so excited about the Olympics that they will cheer anything. Even sports they don't understand.

"I don't know the rules of archery very clearly. Actually, I don't even know how many members are on a team," said Wen Liwei, 36, a housewife who saw China win silver to South Korea's gold in an archery final Sunday. "But it's fantastic."

At the NBA-approved Wukesong Indoor Stadium, fans even cheered the officials responsible for posting statistics on the board. They waved Chinese flags during the Australia-Croatia game that preceded the highly anticipated U.S.-China game, which the Americans won 101-70. Every last nosebleed seat in the 18,700-seat stadium was filled.

Early on, critics said ticket prices would be too expensive, or some sports would be too obscure, for most Chinese. But getting a ticket, any ticket, has become an absolute must for thousands of people here.

Schoolteacher Pu Xi, 26, said he waited in line nearly 20 hours to buy a field hockey ticket, even though he doesn't like field hockey very much. But it was his only chance to see an Olympic game. "So I will open my eyes wide. I can't afford to miss a single detail," said Pu, whose first choice, soccer, was sold out.

Han Jie, 34, a sports fan who works in a financial services company, said he feared missing out. "It's not easy to buy tickets, but fortunately my friend gave me some," said Han, who attended the gymnastics qualifications. "When my daughter grows up, I can tell her she was here. Otherwise she will make fun of me, and I will never hear the end of it if she finds out I didn't attend the Olympics."

Communist Party officials, eager to unify the country amid growing anxiety about the economy and other problems, seemed to have succeeded at boosting national pride.

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