Hosting the Olympics in post-quake China

South Wind View
July 30, 2008

The latest issue of South Wind View brings together the Wenchuan Earthquake and the Beijing Olympics, "not because they share any logical relationship, but because we discovered, after being unable to stop thinking about them, that there were definite connections between the two central events of the year."

The newsweekly asks, "After Wenchuan, what of the Olympics?" On a national scale, the feature examines how the earthquake and the Games are transforming the cold-war model of Chinese nationalism and contributing to trust in the government. And locally, it looks at Sichuan enterprises and their role in the quake and the Games, public relations in Chengdu, and the slow march to economic recovery in affected areas.

But South Wind View stops short of placing the Olympic experience directly in the earthquake zone. For that, we turn to the China Beat blog, where Susan Brownell describes how the People's Olympic Education Promotion Team reenacted the Olympic Torch Relay in Deyang, one of the cities hardest hit by the earthquake, to "bring the Olympic spirit into the schools in order to aid the recovery":

We organized Olympic re-enactments at two schools per day for three consecutive days, a total of six schools and over 3,000 children. Our status in Deyang increased each day. Local education officials held a meeting midway through our second day to assess our achievements. The head of the Deyang Education Bureau, Mr. Mao, observed, "The Olympic spirit is the spirit of conquering the disaster. Could we recover so quickly without the spirit of 'swifter, higher, stronger'? This is also our spirit....Our students' psychological wounds are serious. We will organize our students to get into motion. We humans cannot stop, our spirit cannot stop."

The emotional impact of the Wenchuan Earthquake is the topic of one of the essays in the South Wind View feature. Peking University sociologist Zheng Yefu suggests that while the quake may have dampened enthusiasm, at least to some degree, for an all-out Olympic carnival, too much importance was attached to the Games in the first place:

The Beijing Olympics: A Coming of Age Ceremony Bidding Farewell to Angry Youth

by Zheng Yefu / SWV

If the National Games were to take place after the Wenchuan Earthquake, they very well may have been canceled. But these are the Olympics. China has made a promise to the world, so it can only absorb it and carry on.

If China were a small country like Greece and suffered an earthquake, perhaps it would be unable to hold the Olympics, but China is equal in size to dozens of small countries put together. China suffers natural disasters every year; it's just that this year's was extra-large, and the victims suffered both material and psychological blows. Afterward, spiritual sustenance was no less important than material needs. Watching the Olympics on TV could help to divert them from their sorrows, and the bravery of certain athletes will certainly be an encouragement. We should not imagine that disaster victims have no need for appropriate entertainment.

However, the Wenchuan Earthquake will drain some of the color and vitality from the glittering Olympic Games - this a line I wrote during the earthquake aftermath for the article "Tragic death, brilliant life" (The Beijing News, 2008.05.24). But like the rule of kings Wen and Wu, tension alternates with relaxation. The human psyche cannot sustain long-term excitement. After an intense period, we can't get excited again for a little while. Spirit is what's important at the Olympics - the spirit, energy, and essence of the host country. That's what I meant by that line. What makes the Olympics appeal to all of humanity? Because modern life is so ordinary. But our experiences prior to these Olympics have been exactly the opposite. The Olympics should be a carnival, but that is at odds with the deaths of tens of thousands. Such is fate. We must bravely accept it.

For a long time, we have placed far too much emphasis on trophies and have marginalized sports for ordinary people. The spread of sports has the potential transform the bodies and minds of our citizens, and they can mold the next generation. But we have not done enough. Winning fewer gold medals is really no big deal. Does America, a developed country, care? Does India, a developing country, care? We care far too much. But good fortune arises from the depths of bad, and things will turn around.

Someone who has been both poor and rich and who has occupied all social rungs generally finds it easy to remain calm, while someone who has always been mired in the dregs of society is liable to be aggrieved and paranoid. Setbacks after 1840 caused major injuries to the Chinese people that have not healed to this day. A few years ago, whenever there was a major international sporting event we'd say, "We used to be the Sick Man of Asia, but now...." But we haven't been the Sick Man of Asia for a long time, and before the 18th Century we didn't lag behind the rest of the world. Never forgetting frustrations and insults is a sickness. But paradoxically, curing this sickness requires another abnormal state: we need a moment of exuberance and pride. Once all that has passed, the shame will be wiped away and our uneven mental states will be much more in balance. I predict that the greatest effect the Olympics will have on our national feeling will not be an increase in our self-esteem, but rather a restitution and gradual normalization of our national psyche.

I am fortunate: as a teacher, I don't have to work during the Olympics. Sports is one of those things where those who enjoy it are nothing like those who don't, leading to things like "football widows." It's not really necessary to hold the World Cup in a city of "widows." When a developed country bids for the Olympics, it faces questions from opposing factions made up of city residents. The scale of the Olympics so large that many other things will be brought to a halt during the Games. I hope that future Olympics can be held in multiple cities instead of just one, perhaps in several cities in one large country or in a number of smaller countries. Such a plan would bring fewer disturbances to city residents during the Games, and Olympic venues would not be left unused afterward. But this idea will not be handed down from on high, nor will it be promoted by politicians and businessmen; it ought to be driven by environmentalists together with city residents who dislike sports.

The Beijing Olympic Games will be a watershed moment for China's athletic system. In the future, the national system that pursues competitive skills for an extremely small group of people will be overturned and replaced with physical fitness for all, for the reason mentioned above.

Americans don't care about trophies. The US is a basketball kingdom, but no one cared much when it lost the Olympic gold. Why? One important reason is that they had already been proud. They had self-confidence and weren't afraid of being looked down upon. Our national sports system was set up for face and self-esteem. This Olympiad, China's gold medal count will be at least #2, and possibly #1. Even coming in second will give the top dog quite a scare. Face has definitely been won, brought to an unprecedented level, one that might not be sustainable. We will have vented, so there's no need for that any longer, and our will to go all out in pursuit of prizes will be gone. After the Olympics, there will be a major transformation in China's sports system. We must bid farewell to "angry youth" and become even-tempered adults.

In the August 14 issue of The New York Review of Books, Orville Schell presents a similar interpretation of the Beijing Olympics and how the Games relate to Chinese nationalism and China's place in the world:

After a century and a half of famine, war, weakness, foreign occupation, and revolutionary extremism, a growing number of Chinese—overseas as well as inside China—had come to look to the Olympic Games as the long-heralded symbolic moment when their country might at last escape old stereotypes of being the hapless "poor man of Asia"; a preyed-upon "defenseless giant"; victim of a misguided Cultural Revolution; the benighted land where in 1989 the People's Liberation Army fired on "the people." In one grand, symbolic stroke, the Olympic aura promised to help cleanse China's messy historical slate, overthrow its legacy of victimization and humiliation, and allow the country to spring forth on the world stage reborn —"rebranded" in contemporary parlance—as the great nation it once had been, and has yearned for so long to once more become.

The ultimate question, according to the editor's introduction to the South Wind View feature: "After everything is over, how will people live their lives?"

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There are currently 10 Comments for Hosting the Olympics in post-quake China.

Comments on Hosting the Olympics in post-quake China

等一下,郑也夫!(Wait a minute, Zheng Yefu!) Not so fast, my friend! The 东亚病夫 (Sick Man of Asia) sporting event reference still applies to China with regard to one particular popular global athletic competition.
It's a pity that soccer is an Olympic sport.
(You knew I was going there!) China, a table tennis kingdom, is compelled to field a soccer team in 2008 as a benefit of being the glorious host country.
Now I invite you to imagine a proud nation of 1.3 billion people sharing a single goal. Could it possibly be China finishing #1 in the Olympic gold medals count? Au contraire, mon frère! I said a single goal and I literally meant "a single goal"!
I'm telling you now; unless China's Olympic soccer squad can score a single goal (that's right; not a victory, just one lousy goal!) to heal the painful scarring memory of a scoreless 2002 World Cup, the only big red purple thing ("大红大紫一回") will be China's bruised ego.
The angry youth (愤青) will still be full of fury and impossible to bid farewell unless China's soccer team fares well. Just one goal China, ... just one lousy goal will bring about a moment of jubilation that will reach from Wenzhou to Wenchuan and from Shenyang to Shenzhen.
Will it be against New Zealand? The defense of Brazil and Belgium is too strong. Maybe the All Whites (New Zealand's soccer nickname)are China's best hope to attain the ultimate goal. 同一个世界,同一个梦想,同一个进球
One world, one dream, one goal!

Assuming we even have a soccer team at the Olympics, China scoring its one goal against the All Whites would be particularly appropriate considering the one and only time the All Whites made it to the World Cup, they did so by beating China (1981, 1982?).

Americans don't care about trophies. The US is a basketball kingdom, but no one cared much when it lost the Olympic gold. Why? One important reason is that they had already been proud. They had self-confidence and weren't afraid of being looked down upon.

Really? The reporter must not watch ESPN very much; there were countless soft-focus, slow motion dirges about the death of American basketball dominance.

I find it interesting that the olympic flame/torch has become Chinese. There seems to have been a very clear disconnect from the flame being a supposed international symbol of whatever. Prior to this year's olympics I never paid much attention to the spectacle, but I wonder if other countries made such wholesale efforts at appropriating all symbols or the ethos of the games as being solely their own.

You make a good point, bocaj. But while Zheng may be understating the importance of Olympic victories for Americans, I do think he's right that China cares much more about winning on the global stage. Apart from sports, there's the annual agonizing over yet another luckless Nobel Prize season (see Zhu Dake's comments here) and the periodic flaps over international technical standards. American arrogance can be off-putting, but it means that even when the US loses an international competition, people will still say, "Oh yeah? Well, we saved your ass in WWII!" China's response tends to be, "See, the world's holding us back, just like it's done since 1848!" There's a pretty good op-ed in The Beijing News today (not yet online, unfortunately), contrasting "cultural pride" (文化自豪) with "cultural arrogance" (文化傲慢).

Spelunker: So true. Obviously, Zheng is a football widower who doesn't share the same goal as his 1.3 billion countrymen. But "after the Chinese team was knocked out of the World Cup qualifiers in 1997, football became even more tightly linked with the country's rise." That line comes from the 1999 SF novel "Life in the World of the Future" (在未来世界的日子里), which is based on the premise that as poor as players are now ("in those days, football was a luckless profession. But the worse things get, the more people want to take part"), a player who time-travels to the 2060 Olympics in Rio is so much more talented than players of the future that he single-handledly revives their Olympic hopes, running afoul of an international crime and terrorism syndicate that was betting on China to fail.

What do the bookmakers say about China's chances this Olympiad?

The premise I see in the novel you mentioned
(在未来世界的日子里) is that China has absolutely no future in the World Cup! It's easier for less competitive countries to qualify for the Olympic men's tournament because each team is only allowed 3 players over the age of 23.

The bookmakers in Australia say that China actually has a fair chance against New Zealand, who they meet first in Group C at Shenyang. The New Zealand Oly Whites national team played poorly in recent warm-up matches against Honduras and two private clubs in Indonesia, but they also rested some of their starters.
There's really no better opponent for China among all countries competing in the 2008 Olympics than New Zealand, who have the worst overall odds to win a medal. It's true luck of the draw, as the Group C also features favorite Brazil (who beat China 4-0 in the 2002 World Cup) and a strong team from Belgium.

@Bocaj: You forget the Chinese INVENTED the Olympics. That's why all symbols, by default, have been co-opted.

@Joel: I do believe Amricans *do* have more than a passing interest in the medal count as evidenced by such websites as the NY Times' now daily headline story focusing on some athlete and his/her quest for gold. However, there is no unhealthy obsession about it and it being a point of "national pride" and disgrace if said athlete loses. I really feel sorry for Liu Xiang (see NY Times feature on him this weekend) and his burden. What IF he loses?? I wonder what the State generated excuses will be? "The hegemonic Western powers conspired to make him lose by rigging the hurdles", "Opium sales in the 1800s led directly to his loss", "Posing for too much ads for Western imperialist companies drugged his mind and made him lose focus."

Poor guy...let's hope he does extremely well for the sake of normalization of visa policies and the country going back to "normal" in September!


Compared to China, the U.S. has only a very modest interest in the Olympic medals. The fact that the NY Times offers its readers a daily medal count is no more noteworthy than the fact that it offers boxscores for every Yankees game. In general, Americans pay attention to the Olympics for exactly two-and-a-half weeks every four years. Then they forget about it entirely. The only way a Chinese person could avoid the subject of the Olympic Games is to move abroad.

Food for thought:
A small group of minders follows Liu Xiang wherever he goes. Likewise, he is not allowed to drive his own car, nor is he allowed to drink bottled water unless its source can be verified. Do you imagine that he's spent even five minutes alone with a woman under the age of 50 since 2004? Not a chance. I bet he can't pull off a good wank without the entire Chinese Ministry of Sports hearing about it. I can't imagine a U.S. athlete being subject to such restrictions. For that matter, can you imagine a Chinese Olympic athlete going to school full-time, working at Home Depot on the weekends, and training for his event during the off hours? I can't.

After Guo Jingjing was criticized for not taking her training seriously, she apologized by saying, "I belong to China." No kidding. Again, no U.S. athlete would ever say such a thing. Not ever.

China has more than 100 pistol shooting training centers - the U.S. only 3. This is all in keeping with China's desire to win the most gold medals by targeting events which promise a high ratio of medals to events. Shooting, weightlifting, and rowing have all been identified by the Chinese in recent years as potential goldmines.

China has spent over a billion dollars training its athletes during the last 7 years - far more than the U.S. has invested. In addition, policies aimed at increasing China's medal take have been discussed at the highest levels of government.

China is obsessed with gold. Unlike the U.S. and Russia, which each win a similar number of gold, silver and bronze medals, China wins many gold but few silver and bronze.

China, not the U.S., employs legions of county and prefectural officials as talent scouts. Tape measure in hand, these people criss-cross the country identifying young Chinese boys and girls, largely from impoverished families, who run faster, jump higher, and bend more flexibly than their peers. Tens of thousands of these kids are training in so-called "schools" throughout China. When one of them is injured or burns out, the broken athlete is generally given a bus ticket back home to parents he or she may not have seen for a year or two. For every Liu Xiang and Guo Jingjing, there are thousands who did not make the cut and were rudely discarded - poorly educated and often injured. Even the sports-obsessed U.S. does not engage in such obsessive, systematic cruelty. No wonder the wealthy Chinese middleclass balk at sending their own children to such schools.

Make no mistake, the Chinese desperately want to win the most gold medals this time around. Anything less will be a sorry disappointment. On the other hand, most Americans will take their lumps and move on. They have the Super Bowl.

Ma Bole,

Thousands of "college athletes" in the US, often poor minorities, are used for a few years to sell tickets, given a cursory education with a sorry graduation rate and sorrier chance of making the pro-leagues.

Why do they do it? Other opportunities for inner city blacks do not exist.

For every Kobe Bryant and Jeffri Chadiha, there are thousands who did not make the cut and were rudely discarded - poorly educated and often injured. What exactly does the sports-obsessed U.S. not engage in?

The only point you make is Americans don't care for Olympic sports.


Your response to my post was retarded.

I'm not making the case that the U.S. is perfect. It is indeed shameful that poorly educated young black men are exploited by some U.S. universities. However, such abuse is generally limited to larger universities AND to so-called "revenue sports" (i.e., American football and basketball). Moreover, the case is not nearly so dire as you suggest, nor does it come close to approaching the obsessive and systematic brutality of the Chinese state-sponsored system.

I was a college athlete (cross country), and our athletic department was very proud of the fact that athletes at my university achieved a higher graduation rate than non-athletes - something like 90 percent of athletes graduated within five years of matriculation - several percentage points higher than non-athletes. Furthermore, U.S. athletes attend real universities. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in China, where young children with athletic potential are identified and then sent to primary and middle schools where little or no attention is paid to academics. They are schools in name only. In actuality, they are athletic factories.

Case in point: A friend of mine, a Chinese world record holder and gold medal winner at the Atlanta Olympics, was identified at age 12 (older than many Chinese athletes), removed from her family, and taken to a provincial "school" where she trained twice a day. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was expected from her except to eat, sleep, and run when she was told. In 1999, when she was admitted to Renmin University (without ever having taken the entrance exam), her academic department (法律学系) was forced to dramatically alter the curriculum to accommodate her lack of preparation. Even so, she lasted only a year and a half before leaving. She was a patently awful student. So was her roommate - another, less well-known athlete. And they were the lucky ones. Most Chinese athletes never have the opportunity to attend university.

Division 1 universities in the U.S. may indeed fail a discouraging number of their football and basketball players, but they generally do much better by their other athletes - e.g., cross country runners, track-and-field athletes, wrestlers, swimmers, field hockey players, gymnasts, etc. I, for one, received a great education from a good university in exchange for my participation. So did all of my teammates.

Perhaps a comparison between the U.S. and Chinese systems is not as black and white as I suggest. However, the U.S. system is so much better than China's that it might as well be viewed as such.

The larger point that I tried to make in my first post is that no western nation, not even the U.S., goes to the lengths that China does to win gold medals. This fact says something about the nature of our respective political systems, our need for respect, and our sense of confidence. The Chinese State's preoccupation with winning gold medals is an anachronism that harkens back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, after Karl Marx and Mao Zedong, no "thinker" has found more traction with the Chinese elite than Herbert Spencer. What a shame. Sick man of Asia? China's obsessive desire to disprove this notion has, in fact, made them sick. While comparisons between the CCP and Hitler's Third Reich are misguided, comparisons between the way that each approached the staging of the Olympic Games are not.

Again, your comment was retarded.

Whoooaa. Defensive aren't we.

Your sample size of "one of my athlete friends failed out of Renmin University" is quite scientific.

There are well run sports school in China and abusive ones. Qinghua's diving program is excellent while some others mimic UNLV.

There are also many inner city kids who wash out before getting any athletic scholarship. Prep school recuiters prowl big city playgrounds looking for highschool talent. How many make it to college let alone the NBA?

China likes Olympic medals. You think its brutal. Americans like football and ultimate fighting. Some would say that's brutal.

And Herbert Spencer??? Hunh??? I had to Wikipedia him.

I never heard him brought up by anyone elite, non-elite, Chinese, or not.

And trust me, I'm very very elite.

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