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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."

The People's Daily said that "losers need more warm support from the society and from all walks of life. A little bit of your encouragement and attention will help them out of the shadow of failure, warm them up, inspire them and make them feel more confident."

Li Yanyan, 27, China's first world wrestling champion, said Chinese athletes feel extra pressure because they're competing on their own soil. The Chinese media had expressed hope that Li would medal, but he lost to a Kazakh wrestler in the quarterfinals of his division.

"I wanted to perform okay at home," Li said. "And if I lost, not lose too badly."

In Beijing, the Chinese public -- from taxi drivers to top leaders -- are all closely monitoring the medal count. Television and radio shows provide almost constant updates about how many medals Chinese athletes have racked up, along with how their haul compares with that of their biggest rival -- the Americans.

Commentators have showered praise on winners with flowery, over-the-top prose. Zhong Man's golden saber "lit up Chinese hearts" when he won the gold in fencing. Seventeen-year-old Long Qingquan was "exuberant and fearless" when he grabbed gold in the men's 56kg weightlifting event.

But as the Olympic Games continue and the list of Chinese medal winners gets longer, so does the list of losers.

The latest target is China's women's volleyball team, which lost 2-3 Friday to the United States while President Hu Jintao was in the audience.

China's soccer team, long the butt of jokes, failed to advance to the knockout stage of the tournament after being pummeled 3-0 by Brazil on Wednesday night. The China Daily newspaper featured a special box this week quoting people insulting the team.

Likewise, Wang Lei and Tan Xue, both top-ranked fencers expected to win gold, were ridiculed after failing to medal. Tan Zongliang, who was expected to win the gold but instead got a bronze in the 50m air pistol shooting competition, was also portrayed as a failure. He "acknowledges his disappointing Olympic record is due to his inability to handle the pressure," the China Daily said.

Wang Jian, the coach for China's fencing team, which won one gold medal but was expected to win as many as five, acknowledged the burden. "Athletes have more pressure competing on home field," Wang said. "No matter how good an athlete you are, you are inevitably faced with huge psychological pressure competing under these circumstances. Inevitably you make mistakes."

No one has lost as prominently as Du, a 26-year-old shooter who took the gold in Athens.

Born in the coal-mining province of Shandong, Du was first noticed by a sports school teacher. The coach, recognizing that she had perfect vision, wanted to train her in shooting, but her father, who worked as a policeman, refused. He dreamed his daughter would go to college and become a lawyer, according to a profile in the Hong Kong newspaper Wenweipo. Finally, her grandfather convinced her parents that it would be good for her future.

During her first competition, she was so stressed that she fainted. But she eventually came to like the sport so much that she paid her own way through sports school.

Du, who through the Beijing Olympic committee declined to be interviewed, has previously described herself as a typical 20-something who likes to shop, listen to music, watch blockbuster movies, and sometimes play online games.

Zhou Shibing, Du's sports school coach from her middle school years, watched last Saturday's match with Du's parents in their home town of Yiyuan and spoke with the athlete after she lost.

"The first time I called her, she was all crying. I was comforting her, but she was just bursting into tears," Zhou said.

Katerina Emmons of the Czech Republic, the athlete who won the gold in Du's event, said she felt so bad for Du that she wanted to give her flowers -- the ones medal winners are given.

"The Chinese press is putting a lot of pressure on the athletes, and it's really hard to handle," Emmons said.

Even after Du captured gold on Thursday, some Chinese suggested it wasn't enough.

"The gold she could have won is the first Olympic gold medal for Chinese athletes in their home country. It is an opportunity in a thousand years," said Wang, the associate professor at Zhejiang University.

"So it is more important than any other gold medals," Wang said. "It is a regret you can never compensate for."

On Friday, state-run media sounded more sympathetic about Du's earlier performance, saying that she had "turned her defeat into victory" and that she is still the "apple of the eyes of Chinese sports fans and opponents alike."

Du said that after her loss she was so upset that she thought about pulling out of the Games altogether. She said, though, that some die-hard supporters cheered her on -- showing what a difference a supportive fan base can make in an athlete's performance.

"The five days seemed to me longer than four years," Du said, according to the New China News Agency. "But many people offered me their support and encouragement, some volunteers sent me cards, which made me realize that I couldn't give up, and I have no reason to give up."

Researchers Wu Meng and Crissie Ding contributed to this report.

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