Burdened By China's Gold Standard

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 16, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 15 -- On state-run TV, the camera zoomed in on Du Li's face. Underneath her cap, the Chinese athlete's eyes were puffy and red. She was bawling.

"I tried so very hard," she managed to choke out. "But I didn't achieve it."

Du was China's first official gold medal loser.

After months of hype in which commentators said she was "expected," "likely" and "the favorite" to bring glory to her country, Du crashed and burned -- at least by Chinese standards -- finishing fifth in the 10m air rifle competition last Saturday, the first day of full competition. At that point, Chinese spectators let her have it.

"The state spent so much money on you, provided you with such good facilities, gave you four years to train," one former fan wrote on Tiexue, one of China's biggest online bulletin boards. " . . . You disappoint your countrymen."

In China's obsessive quest to capture more medals than any other country at the Summer Games, the performance of every athlete has been deemed critically important. So those who have fallen short of expectations -- securing a silver instead of a gold, or worse, winning no medal at all -- have been vilified.

For all Olympic athletes, the Games are an opportunity to win for themselves and for their home countries. But for the Chinese, the balance often seems to tilt toward the state. Winning and losing matter deeply to the Chinese government, which through a system of rigorous sports schools, invests in elite athletes from a very young age. Authorities have developed an extensive training program to up the medal count for Chinese athletes in sports in which they have traditionally lagged behind their Western counterparts.

As of Friday, China had won 41 medals, 26 of them gold, and the United States 46, with 14 gold.

China has imposed "the hopes of a whole society upon athletes," said Wang Jin, an associate professor at Zhejiang University who studies "choking" -- low-level mistakes made at critical moments -- by elite athletes. As a result of this pressure, he said, "our athletes are often more psychologically fragile than foreign athletes."

For Chinese viewers, one of the most iconic images of the Games so far has been that of Du running from the shooting range in shame after her competition. Five days later, she would win gold in the 50m three-position shooting event, but last Saturday, the scene of her embarrassment was on a seemingly endless replay loop on state-run CCTV. Sports fans -- a fickle bunch the world over -- piled on by registering their disappointment online.

Alarmed by the scorn being heaped on athletes, the state-run media this week suggested fans should be better losers.

"Today, we have too many things to show to the world. China no longer needs the number of gold medals to prove itself," said the Jiefang Daily. "In the last few days of competition, the greatest harvest for China is not the position on top of the gold list, but the growing psychological maturity of the people."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company