One of the stated goals of the Chinese Olympic team for these summer games was to surpass the U.S. and capture the most total medals of the games. Barring that, China wanted to at least win the most gold medals. As many have described, this strategy involved focusing on relatively unknown sports that offered many medals, such as canoeing, kayaking, and shooting.
The thinking is that accomplishing this feat would supposedly elevate China above the U.S. in terms of sporting image and status. And we already know how important image is to China. So far, it looks like China’s strategy is working, since they have a sizable lead over the U.S. in gold medals with just two days remaining in the games.
But is this “gold rush” ultimately the best strategy for China? As Time magazine reports, more Chinese are now questioning this rationale and rethinking China’s obsession with the image of winning:
By midweek—even as Chinese athletes drew nearer to their golden goal—domestic media appeared to be counseling modesty. . . . The article argued that gold medals aren’t everything—but that it was OK to expect athletes to win gold so long as they aren’t unduly pressured.
The Global Times added a further cautionary note by quoting Beijing University of Physical Education professor Ren Hai: “Although China’s got a lot of medals, it cannot be counted as a sports power yet.” . . .
Another message from propaganda-meisters is that Chinese athletes aren’t automatons. The Oriental Morning Post, based in Liu’s hometown of Shanghai, compared Liu to the not-quite-invincible Greek hero Achilles and counseled Chinese fans to be more tolerant—and mindful that sports stars are human beings, too. . . .
[Says Chen Gang, Communist secretary in Beijing,] “Gold medals aren’t the most important thing for us in Chaoyang. The most important thing is how much people enjoy the Games—and I mean all people, including our many foreign visitors.” . . .
If China’s gauge of success shifts more toward the enjoyment of the people–and away from the diktat of the state—that would be a welcome new gold standard indeed.
The article focuses more on Chinese authorities wanting its citizens to treat its athletes more like human beings than disposable robots whose only purpose is to bring more medals to China. But the undercurrent here is how China’s obsession with winning the most gold medals affects its larger international image.
On the one hand, it would be easy for Americans to say to China, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” The U.S. is still the recognized “alpha dog” in terms of international athletics so our position at the top is not likely to change any time soon, even if China ends up with more gold medals, or even more total medals.
It would sort of be like for Whites (Americans, European, or otherwise) to say to Asians/Asian Americans, “Hey, don’t take things too seriously — our slanted-eye gesture was meant as a sign of affection. We didn’t mean to reinforce and perpetuate a long-standing racist gesture.”
But for a country like China that is still politically, economically, and culturally developing and still coming to grips with its newly developed status and power, it means a lot to say that they’ve surpassed the most dominant country in the world in such a public way. In the larger “sports” of international superpower games, it is just one battle to win, but image-wise, it would be significant for China.
Having said that, the reality is that there are differences in status when it comes to international athletics — a gold medal in kayaking or shooting does not carry the same cachet as one in swimming, basketball, or track. And many will privately and publicly smirk at China for their strategy of focusing on relatively obscure sports that offer many medals instead of competing with the “big dogs” in “real” sports.
Where do I stand in this debate? Again, at the risk of satisfying no one, I say, let China focus on getting the most gold medals in these games for now. For a nation on the rise, it would be a much-needed psychological boost and would be well worth the smirks that it may get from other countries.
But four years later when we all meet again in London for the next Summer Olympics, if China still wants to be considered a legitimate sports power like the U.S., it needs to “step up its game” and compete head-to-head with the U.S. in sports that have more reward in terms of status and prestige.
In other words, if China wants to proclaim that it has “arrived,” it needs to show up dressed for the part.