There is only one ‘Olympic value’: win, win, win

The assault on China even for its ‘gold medal culture’ exposes the mad mix of moral disdain and moral relativism behind China-bashing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

For the past six months, during what we might call the cultural pogrom against China, you could barely open a newspaper or switch on the box without seeing the Chinese accused of ‘betraying Olympic values’. Everything from their smog (which, some forget, is the byproduct of an economic growth that has lifted literally millions out of poverty) to their actions in Tibet has been cited as evidence that China is ‘morally unfit’ to host the value-laden spectacle of brotherhood that is the Olympic Games (1). Clearly only Decent Nations should have the Olympics, nations that never pollute, never remove people’s rights, and never invade other countries. Nations like Britain, for example.

Yet now, as three weeks of running, jumping, swimming, lifting, throwing, rowing and ping-ponging kick off in Beijing, China is slated for its adherence to one Olympic value, and the only one which, forgetting the anti-China platitudes and international politicisation of the Games, really matters: Citius, altius, fortius. Swifter, higher, stronger.

China’s determination to win as many gold medals as possible – what one Western reporter snottily, and bizarrely, brands its ‘gold medal culture’ – is held up as evidence that the ruthless and robotic Chinese, with their well-oiled ‘sports machine’, will do anything, including trample on ‘basic human standards’, to win, win, win (2). Never mind that it is the very spirit of the Olympic Games to be the best, and for individuals imbued with dedication and determination to execute truly extraordinary feats before the eyes of the world, in the hope that they will clamber to the top of the podium – the most visible symbol of elitism left in our relativistic world – and be adorned with the world’s most valuable metal: gold. No, when the Chinese adhere to this Olympic value, they are denounced as monstrous, abusive, pathological…

The assault on the Chinese even for their Olympianism exposes the curious combination of moral disgust and moral relativism that underpins contemporary China-bashing, the mix of old-fashioned prejudice and new-fangled self-doubt that is fuelling Western society’s standoffishness with all things Chinese. It shows that the Chinese are still viewed as being somehow different to ‘us’, as unfeeling automatons… and it shows that many Western observers are distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of commitment, self-sacrifice, naked competition, and celebrations of breathtaking human endeavour. Today, the Chinese are seen as being alien to us, but also too much like we used to be.

China’s drive to win big at Beijing 2008 has been discussed in almost purely pejorative terms in Western media coverage. ‘China’s sports machine has one goal: gold medals’, sniffs an American correspondent, who writes with barely disguised horror of the ‘gold medal culture’ at China’s sports schools, institutions which ‘focus resolutely on winning gold medals’ (3).

Yet anybody attending Beijing without the single-minded goal of winning a gold might want to have a word with themselves. Why are they there? For the glory of a bronze? The honour of fifth place in the synchronised swimming? It’s worth noting that even the brazenly elitist ‘Best’, ‘Quite Good’ and ‘Not Bad’ hierarchy of gold, silver and bronze medals is a relatively modern invention. In the Ancient Greek Games only the winners were honoured; there were no prizes for coming second, much less third. The current medal system was introduced for the modern Olympic Games in 1894, and that oft-quoted dictum ‘The most important thing is not to win, but to take part!’ – which no sportsman or woman takes seriously – was introduced in 1908. It was inspired by a Bishop’s sermon when the Games took place in… you guessed it, London (4). Yet one recent news report said, with a shriek of moral outrage, that ‘Everybody talks about gold in China. If you win bronze or silver, you are a loser.’ To some of us, that looks like the Athenian spirit of the Games alive and sprinting (5).

All sport is about winning, and the Olympics more so than any other. Yet the Chinese desire to win is treated as something superbly sinister. We’re told that the Chinese have a ‘Soviet-style sports machine’, that its gymnasts are ‘machine men’, that there is an ‘obsession with winning’ (6). One blogger argues that the Chinese have removed ‘the human element’ from sport so that each athlete becomes ‘like a robot, like a machine, not improvising or acting on human values’ (7).

The idea of the Chinese as medal-winning ‘machines’ cut off from ‘human values’ is a recurring one. China’s tough training of its young gymnasts has been described as ‘torture’. One Western writer says: ‘When entertainment requires this kind of self-sacrifice, our values – for willingly watching and participating – and the values of the Chinese are severely out of line with basic human standards.’ (8)

There are double standards in this debate, too. Every nation competing in the Games wants to amass gold medals as much for political and international prestige reasons as for the pure, spine-tingling sporting glory of it. Yet the Chinese government’s lust for golds is depicted as somehow darker and dodgier than any other government’s. When British sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe recently said ‘it is vital’ that Team GB achieves the ‘serious target’ of winning 41 medals in Beijing, it was treated as a quaint New Labour-style target, and, tellingly, as over-ambitious (9). Yet the Chinese government’s Project 119 – named after the number of gold medals it thinks it can claim in various track-and-field and water-based events – has been cited as evidence of China’s thirst for ‘global domination’: ‘Unprecedented military discipline, huge sporting budgets and state-of-the-art foreign technology have all been incorporated into “Project 119”’, says one account, as part of China’s ‘goal of global domination’ (10).

Scary. Beware Fu Manchu in running shorts and Nike sneakers, using his machine-like skills to obliterate Western athleticism and dominate the sporting world. (Insert sinister-sounding laugh here.)

There is no doubt that Chinese trainers push their athletes to extremes and make them work long hours to perfect their art. Yet the handwringing about China’s ‘obsession with winning’ is underpinned by the rather poisonous idea that ‘they’ are essentially different to ‘us’; that they are ‘machine-like’ people who run and jump and throw without feeling, and possibly under threat of shame or punishment. Where ‘our’ athletes have names and stories – bubbly 14-year-old diver Tom Daley, for example, or runner Paula Radcliffe, and the suspenseful drama of whether she will beat her injuries and win the Olympic marathon – ‘their’ athletes tend to be seen as red-clad robots produced by dubious military methods who must, must, MUST win. Who’s really ‘dehumanising’ China’s athletes – their trainers, or Western representations of their Olympian efforts?

Here, contemporary China-bashing has echoes of yesterday’s ‘Yellow Peril’ fears about the Chinese. The idea of the Chinese as peculiarly driven, unemotional and unforgiving is an old prejudice that is being rehabilitated on the back of the Olympic Games. As Robert L Gee points out in his book Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, China-bashers in the past talked about ‘Chinese aloofness’; back then, people saw ‘Chinese arrogance’ in their snooty ‘Yellowfaces’ (11). The explicit racist lingo has gone, but the notion of an arrogant race hoping to win by any means possible can still be glimpsed in the denigration of China’s Olympian ambitions.

Yet there is also much that is new in the current explosion of China-bashing. Alongside long-standing fears of the Easterner and his strange habits, there is a powerful element of Western self-doubt and even self-loathing in contemporary attitudes to China. In their alarm at China’s ‘obsession with winning’, sometimes gritty determination and demands for self-sacrifice to a ‘cause’ (gold, gold, gold), Western commentators and activists expose our own culture’s collapse of faith in single-minded human endeavour and our seeming unwillingness to rise above the mundane to do things awesome or historic.

In the acres of tortured coverage of China’s ‘torture’ of its athletes, we can glimpse a key component of the West’s current confused approach to the Chinese: the new China reminds Western society of what it used to be like before it lost its cojones. The idea that tough training tramples on ‘basic human standards’ speaks to Western discomfort with self-sacrifice, with the idea that there is something bigger and better to which an individual might commit him or herself. The claim that China is too obsessed with winning reveals more about Western observers’ disdain for competition – whether in sport, politics or economics – than it does about any weird ingrained Chinese culture. And the notion that China ‘abuses’ its young athletes – including gymnasts as young as six and seven – offers an insight into Western society’s fear for its own next generation, its trepidation about how to socialise, train or raise children without causing long-term harm to their ‘self-esteem’ (12).

Some Western observers are so hostile to what we might call the ‘Olympian ideals’ of drive, zeal, aggression and the other stuff of the examined life that they see intensive training as ‘abuse’ and sport itself as effectively a form of torture. China is increasingly seen as ‘the Other’ precisely because it appears too Western: it is China’s ambition, growth, leaps forward – things that a more confident West might once have celebrated – which make it seem alien to Western observers who today prefer an all-must-have-prizes attitude over Olympian competition, carbon-counting over factory-building, and road tolls over road construction. Contemporary China-bashing is underpinned by a crisis of belief in the West in things such as elitism (the good kind), progress, growth and development.

As the Olympics kick off today, it is clear that China is continually judged through a prism of fear, prejudice and low horizons. Yet for many millions of us, the Western elite’s confusion and envy towards modern China will not impact on our enjoyment of the Games. As Alan Hudson argued recently in the Chinese magazine SL, over the past century various governments have, like China, used the Games for nationalistic reasons – but ‘in the end, the nationality [of the athletes] will not be important’ as we watch simply ‘an individual, with a dedication and determination that we have not exercised ourselves, do something extraordinary’ (13). As we behold Lui Xiang dashing for the gold medal in the 110-metre hurdles or Wang Hao striving for top place in the table tennis, we won’t see foreign robots forced to compete, but human beings doing something inspiring, which might force a lump in the throat of even the most cynical viewer. And that is the only ‘Olympic spirit’ worth talking about.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

(1) We should subject China to an Olympic boycott, Daily Telegraph, 5 April 2008

(2) Olympic glory seen as more than sports, IPS News, 7 August 2008

(3) China’s sports machine has one goal: gold medals, Kansas City Star, 8 August 2008

(4) See Olympic Symbols, Wikipedia

(5) The patriot games, Channel 4 News, 1 August 2008

(6) The patriot games, Channel 4 News, 1 August 2008; Olympic glory seen as more than sports, IPS News, 7 August 2008; Reported on China Daily, May 2008

(7) The patriot games, Channel 4 News, 1 August 2008; Olympic glory seen as more than sports, IPS News, 7 August 2008; Reported on China Daily, May 2008

(8) See And the gold medal for China-bashing goes to…, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) GB ‘to meet’ Olympic medal target, BBC News, 5 August 2008

(10) China’s Olympic plan to topple America, The First Post, 1 August 2008

(11) Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, Robert G Lee, Temple University Press, 1999

(12) Be afraid. Here come the happiness police, Independent, 27 July 2006

(13) Alan Hudson, SL Magazine, Issue 1

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Topics World


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