No Fun and Games For Chinese Athletes

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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 22, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 21 -- Chinese gymnast Cheng Fei had just won a bronze medal for her performance on the balance beam, less than a week after the Chinese squad beat out the Americans for gold in team competition. But speaking with reporters immediately afterward, all she focused on were the mistakes she had made two days earlier in the floor exercise.

"When I was a beginner, it was normal for me to make mistakes," an exhausted Cheng said Tuesday. "But I persisted for four years just for these Games, so when I lost on Sunday it was unimaginable for me. I feel totally empty. . . . I don't have my soul anymore, and am only left with my body."

Even though China has captured more gold medals than any other country, it is difficult to detect success in the voices of its athletes.

Instead, the athletes' post-competition comments reveal a world of pressure and unfulfilled expectations, in stark contrast with the more confident, even boastful comments by Western athletes.

Usain Bolt, the record-breaking Jamaican sprinter whose gold medal performances Saturday and Wednesday had audiences on their feet, was not shy in victory; he thumped his chest and told television cameras he was "number one." The self-congratulatory behavior was criticized Thursday by Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who suggested Bolt be more respectful to his competitors.

Chinese athletes are unlikely to ever get that lecture. When they do well, they fail to boast; and when they do poorly, they can be intensely self-critical. Their attitude, experts say, is largely cultural.

"Our athletes have more pressure than other countries' athletes. They feel they are really responsible for the country's image," said Mao Zhixiong, who teaches sports psychology at Beijing Sports University. "Many Chinese athletes practice their sports not because they like it but because they are selected by the country."

The Chinese government also tends to reward only first-place finishes. According to a well-known saying here, "There is no first place for literature, there is no second place for kung fu."

Chinese athletes spend so much time in training that they rarely see their families. Many struggle to find rewarding work after retirement. Foreign athletes, by contrast, often have jobs or other obligations during their careers and train in their spare time.

Diver Chen Ruolin, 15, who finished first in a preliminary round of 10-meter platform diving Wednesday, said cheering crowds were an encouragement to her. But she seemed puzzled when reporters asked if her family was present. After the question was repeated, Chen replied matter-of-factly: "They didn't come to watch the game. I don't care about this."

Chen won the gold medal Thursday, while her teammate Wang Xin took the bronze.

"The problem with Chinese athletes is they are not bold enough, they don't have strong enough personalities to show," said Zhao Mu, a former sports journalist who said Bolt's joyous victory lap was understandable.


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