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Manqing Cang

What Can One Olympian's Breakdown Tell Us About the "Chinese System"?

Wu Jingbiao, offering a salute during the medal ceremony

Who said there’s no crying in weight lifting? On July 29, Chinese Men’s weight lifter Wu Jingbiao broke down in tears after losing a “sure” gold to his North Korean competitor.

At first, Wu found himself unable to speak. When he finally approached the camera, his first words rang out in frustration: “I shamed my country, my team and all of those who cared for me. I’m sorry!”

While initial reports centered on possible causes of the unexpected defeat, Wu’s dramatic reaction soon came to dominate media attention. Sportscn.com was among the first to wonder why tears of frustration flowed when a silver medal should be celebrated –“to participate in the Olympic Games,” the report opined, “is itself the highest honor.”

Caixun.com, a Chinese website focused on finance, asked a similar question: “Who is Wu Jingbiao? Asian Olympic gold medalist, Asian record holder, World Championship gold medalist…why did he feel like he’d committed a crime by not winning the gold today?” The article, entitled “Behind Wu Jingbiao’s Tearful Apology Is the Chinese Twisted Notion of Sports,” holds the general public responsible for Wu Jingbiao’s unreasonable feelings of guilt:

What is sport? In English, sports competition shares the same name with “game.” In fact, sports and games have no strict distinction–both aim at exercising the body and having fun. However, in the eyes of many Chinese, sports is how we show the world we’re strong, and sports stars are there to win gold medals. We have no idea that sports, in essence, is but one of many games.

But the general public, at least those of its members who use Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, seemed considerably less craven than that. Users expressed sympathy for the distraught weightlifter rather than blame. Many of them wished Wu Jingbiao more progress in the future. Some netizens found it hard to understand why Wu Jingbiao cried over a silver medal at all.

Instead, most Weibo commenters held the system and officials responsible for putting athletes under such pressure. @大胡子2012 wrote: “I say this bro has gone a bit mad under this system. Silver is a great achievement, and he got it through his own effort.” @千之杨飞云 opined, “[The apology] sounds like Wu Jingbiao said it, but really it represents the heads of the sports bureau. If a Chinese kid got a 9 out of 10 in a shooting competition, he’s gonna get blamed for missing the last one; a foreign kid, on the other hand, will get applause for just one. It’s so hard to be Chinese.”

Some netizens took the Olympics as an opportunity to compare different cultural attitudes toward sport. @右手拥抱 observed, “So unfortunate for this country, at women’s archery yesterday, Russia lost but kept smiling; Japan lost but stuck to a positive attitude. In China, a gold medal can get you money and fame; you become spokesperson for brands and ads; you receive prizes and honors from national and local government. It’s even easy to get an [honorific] title…and these you can’t get with a silver medal!”

Footage of Wu’s breakdown (subtitles not TLN’s) is embedded below; a viewer need not understand Chinese to feel moved by Wu Jingbiao’s pain. The incident has triggered a broader online discussion on the criteria for Olympic success. Where four years ago Chinese focused on winning the gold, opinion seems to have tipped in the opposite direction this year, building on its own momentum.

A strain of individualism underlies current criticism of China’s Olympic ambitions. Netizens are focusing on the uselessness of gold medals, arguing that gold medals are not what they want, but rather what the country wants to prove its strength. @呐喊春天 warned: “Don’t think that more gold medals brings higher our global status.” @allen_41503 wrote: “Even if China has all the medals, we have a long way to go in making sports accessible to everyone. Gold medals can’t change the fact that we’re lagged behind in construction of facilities, or make better the problematic training and selection process. We’ve long passed the era where we were looked down upon for not winning medals. Now we win them, but are still looked down upon, because we’ve got nothing but medals.”

All of the above negative emotions stem from the conclusion that some authority figure in China craves gold medals to showcase China’s power. This conclusion is the result of circumstantial evidence like the following comment by @双手插裤兜儿, which has been re-tweeted over 105,000 times: “Two Chinese atheletes, Yi Siling (gold) and Yu Dan (bronze) received treatment worlds apart. The state council excluded Yu Dan from its message of congratulation; China Central Television gave Yu Dan not a single close-up shot; when journalists finally moved from interviewing Yi Siling to Yu Dan, she has left quietly. This country, ignorant of how to show respect, has nothing great except gold medals.”

China’s leaders seem to sense the current shifting, and they are trying to steer it. China Youth Daily, a party-line publication, recently labeled netizen insinuations of skewed priorities as baseless. An article claims that, “In fact, Liu Yandong, member of China’s Politburo…was the first to send a message of congratulations to Yi Siling, Yu Dan and the entire team on behalf of the State Council…Neither did the bronze medalist leave quiet and lonely. She was interviewed by many Chinese media agencies.” 

Significantly, the article does not merely attempt to refute netizen sentiment, but culls social media for evidence of its own. “It is the irresponsible netizens who understands nothing about showing respect, not the country,” wrote one netizen quoted in the piece.

So does anyone in China really want gold? To be certain, in China as in any nation, a gold medal is preferable to a silver or bronze, and assertions to the contrary likely overstate the case. But the reason that Wu’s heart-rending apology has struck such a chord throughout China is that merely finishing a respectable second seemed to have exacted such a psychological price. Perhaps netizens sense it’s time for China’s winner-take-all society to become a bit more encouraging, allowing joy back into sports so that they become “games” once again.

15 Comments
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Manqing Cang

Manqing is a senior at Smith College studying Philosophy.
  • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

    China just can’t win. Even when China achieves gold medals, the western media is there to either criticize their sports program for drug-usage or for unethical child abuse practices to “build” sport stars. In my opinion, China has taken the Olympic dream and spirit and made it perverse. Great article!

  • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

    China just can’t win. Even when China achieves gold medals, the western media is there to either criticize their sports program for drug-usage or for unethical child abuse practices to “build” sport stars. In my opinion, China has taken the Olympic dream and spirit and made it perverse. Great article!

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  • billboolie

    the Chinese people have greatness in the genes. the system has poison in its veins, a black heart and a complete ignorance of any soul. power to the people!

  • billboolie

    the Chinese people have greatness in the genes. the system has poison in its veins, a black heart and a complete ignorance of any soul. power to the people!

  • markuc

    I think you are using one example to generalize all Chinese athletes. If you are not so focused on finding faults, you’ll see that this also happens to other nations. When Australian’s gold metal hopeful James Magnussen didn’t won the silver, he was also visibly distraught when the Australian reporter interviewed him immediately after the event. Similarly, Stephanie Rice, another Australian metal hopeful, broken down in tears after failing to win a metal in another event.

    I think the problem is if athletes are “expected to win” then high expectations are placed on them that there’s very little room for mistakes. But I still believe it comes down to personal drive and expectation. Chinese athletes are generally extremely dedicated and hard working. I think this dedication & commitment is the main difference between them and “western” athletes.

    • Jigme

      you missed the point I think…let me put it inperspective: An abusive parent’s child is always under duress because of the severity of the consequences..if he or she fails in their pursuit…whereas the one wotha more linient parent has lot less pressurewhich enhances his performances because of thesheer freedom he carries with him…

      • markuc

        Following your analogy, the most lenient countries (i.e. no central
        control) would naturally produce the best athletes and therefore the most
        olympic medals? Then how do you explain countries such India that have almost
        no metals? they have a similar population, similar GDP, and all the democracy that money can buy.

        I guess my point is that emotional outbursts like this are the athletes’ own reaction
        to external expectations. They see the hard work and dedication that others
        (parents, coach, fans, etc) has placed on him or her and do not want to see
        them disappointed. Western society/culture are inheretly more individualistic
        than traditional Asian cultures. That’s why in the US it’s not expected for
        families to dedicate themselves to the caring of the elderly, many whither away at elderly centers and die of accidents and abuses.
        Which is better is perhaps a separate discussion.

        Getting back to your point. If you need someone to blame, I believe the
        whole culture of “winners take all” mentality would be the correct target. As a culture,
        I believe we are losing the traditional chinese value of virtue, self-control,
        and inner strength in our mad drive to modernization. That should be the focus
        of our introspection excercise, don’t simply follow the western media and blame
        everything on the “bad & evil Chinese government”.

  • markuc

    I think you are using one example to generalize all Chinese athletes. If you are not so focused on finding faults, you’ll see that this also happens to other nations. When Australian’s gold metal hopeful James Magnussen didn’t won the silver, he was also visibly distraught when the Australian reporter interviewed him immediately after the event. Similarly, Stephanie Rice, another Australian metal hopeful, broken down in tears after failing to win a metal in another event.

    I think the problem is if athletes are “expected to win” then high expectations are placed on them that there’s very little room for mistakes. But I still believe it comes down to personal drive and expectation. Chinese athletes are generally extremely dedicated and hard working. I think this dedication & commitment is the main difference between them and “western” athletes.

    • Jigme

      you missed the point I think…let me put it inperspective: An abusive parent’s child is always under duress because of the severity of the consequences..if he or she fails in their pursuit…whereas the one wotha more linient parent has lot less pressurewhich enhances his performances because of thesheer freedom he carries with him…

      • markuc

        Following your analogy, the most lenient countries (i.e. no central
        control) would naturally produce the best athletes and therefore the most
        olympic medals? Then how do you explain countries such India that have almost
        no metals? they have a similar population, similar GDP, and all the democracy that money can buy.

        I guess my point is that emotional outbursts like this are the athletes’ own reaction
        to external expectations. They see the hard work and dedication that others
        (parents, coach, fans, etc) has placed on him or her and do not want to see
        them disappointed. Western society/culture are inheretly more individualistic
        than traditional Asian cultures. That’s why in the US it’s not expected for
        families to dedicate themselves to the caring of the elderly, many whither away at elderly centers and die of accidents and abuses.
        Which is better is perhaps a separate discussion.

        Getting back to your point. If you need someone to blame, I believe the
        whole culture of “winners take all” mentality would be the correct target. As a culture,
        I believe we are losing the traditional chinese value of virtue, self-control,
        and inner strength in our mad drive to modernization. That should be the focus
        of our introspection excercise, don’t simply follow the western media and blame
        everything on the “bad & evil Chinese government”.

  • Hatechina

    China just can’t win even when they achieve gold medals, but not because western media is there to criticize, but China has been planning for this Olympice game as war of Gold Medal. China has no sympathy for their citizens. And China never be respectected by the rest of the World untill they respect Human rights, specially for Tibetans.

  • Hatechina

    China just can’t win even when they achieve gold medals, but not because western media is there to criticize, but China has been planning for this Olympice game as war of Gold Medal. China has no sympathy for their citizens. And China never be respectected by the rest of the World untill they respect Human rights, specially for Tibetans.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503930455 David Thomas

    An Australian swimmer also cried when she won silver instead of gold. Is that also a sign that “authority figure in [Australia] craves gold medals to showcase [Australia]’s power”? Or do elite athletes just have a desire to win?

  • Ruth Sheffer

    Israeli Judo guy Arik Zeevi also cried when he lost after 45 secs of his match. This is a common thing and nothing to do with being Chinese. Athletes feel they let their country down and are disappointed.. nothing more