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Bad Sportsmanship

Will the 2008 Olympics be a Nightmare for China's Athletes?

Even in this urbane, cosmopolitan city, where Chinese metrosexuals cruise glamorous local malls searching for the latest Italian shoes, and savvy financial investors follow the latest news of property price collapses in America, next year's Olympics seem to have overwhelmed all conversation. On state television at night, Olympic officials constantly tour facilities in Beijing, seemingly updating the public on a minute-by-minute basis. Giant clocks all over the country count down the days to next August. Massive media campaigns in cities exhort citizens to prepare for the Olympics by learning English or signing up to volunteer for the Games.

And as China has turned the Games into its global coming-out party, the Beijing Olympics clearly has become more than two weeks of sporting events. Groups ranging from Darfur activists, who have labeled this the "Genocide Olympics," to Tibetan exiles, who protested in Beijing several weeks ago by draping a giant banner on the Great Wall, have targeted the Olympics. Within China, I have spoken with many activists over the past week, including people fighting the government on issues ranging from housing rights to legal reforms. Nearly to a person, they said they would try to time protests to the Games--though the Chinese authorities likely will attempt to detain them in the weeks before the Olympics begin. One activist said she'd already been detained several times before important Olympic-related events in Beijing.

But in all the coverage of the Games, one group of people seems to have been ignored: China's athletes. For them, China's dream Olympics could prove a nightmare.

Rivaled only by the World Cup, the Olympics fulfill many roles--a site for elite competition; a massive advertising opportunity; a political stage for everyone from the Japanese government, which in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics showed it had recovered from World War II, to Eric Rudolph, the anti-abortion bomber who apparently wanted to cause turmoil at the 1996 Atlanta Games. But they also historically have been a kind of party for the athletes, most of who live together in the Olympic Village, men and women in the prime of their lives who know they'll never see each other again. Not surprisingly, once they finish their events many athletes party and hook up like maniacs.

China's athletes, brought up in a disciplined system, probably never were the life of any Games. But the 2008 Olympics could be particularly brutal for them. Many athletes seem to benefit from local support--in Sydney, Australian athletes, loving the home crowd, turned in a staggering medal haul. But Australian politicians never suggested that Australia's global honor depended on winning medals. China, by contrast, has built a state athletics system even larger than those of the old Eastern Bloc. The system cultivates children from a young age to succeed in sports ranging from gymnastics to swimming, and these athletes become dependent on the state system for subsidies and housing. Because of the dominance of the state system, athletes know that if they don't succeed at the highest levels, they can wind up destitute, because there are fewer ways to make money commercially than in other countries, and the state system does not provide great retirement subsidies for all the athletes. (It also pushes athletes so hard a senior medical official recently had to warn the trainers to back off.) In the past few months, Chinese bloggers have lapped up stories about Ai Dongmei, a marathoner who has wound up peddling clothes to survive and offered to sell her medals online.

Chinese officials also have raised expectations for their athletes extraordinarily high, putting the nation's prestige on their shoulders. (China finished just three medals behind the United States in the Athens 2004 gold haul.) Chinese officials are not shy about describing the 2008 Games as more than a sporting extravaganza. Cui Dalin, deputy director of the General Administration of Sport, recently declared that through the Olympics, the government will "display a great China to the world not only in sports but also in other fields." As the Associated Press recently reported, another Chinese sports official told reporters that if athletes did not repeat their success from Athens, it would be like they had killed themselves. This is hardly a unique sentiment: As one government official told USA Today, Chinese officials "only speak about gold. If you are second, you are a loser."

This mindset is actually reinforced by the specialists China hires to help its athletes. Psychologist Ding Xueqin, who is working with many Chinese national sports teams, bluntly told the People's Daily, "We used to help relieve their [athletes]' pressure, yet we have to increase the pressure for the Beijing Olympics."

This pressure already has taken its toll. As the AP reported, in June one Chinese female gymnast fell from the uneven bars at China's National Championships, fracturing her spine. Some Chinese media blamed the accident on the intense pressure on her. Some officials seem to have recognized that the hype is spilling over, and now they are trying to back off. Despite playing up the Olympics' potential, Cui Dalian this month also told reporters, "The general public has very high expectations of us, but actually our athletes will be faced with extremely fierce competition."

Then there is the political pressure. One group of Chinese activists recently penned an open letter calling on China to respect pledges on human rights it made when getting the Olympics. This letter has been widely circulated in China and is certain to reach athletes, putting them in an awkward position. Foreign Olympians, too, like American speed skating champion Joey Cheek, have launched plans to pressure athletes to use the stage to comment on China's relationship with Sudan. This campaign likely will force Chinese athletes, in press conferences, to answer questions about their views on Sudan, a subject they likely have spent little time studying. To truly prepare its athletes for the Games, perhaps China should ease up on the training regimen and schedule some sessions on handling the media.

By Joshua Kurlantzick