No second place in Kung Fu

Here is a fascinating article on how cultural–and I would say political–differences show up in sports, how unlike the exuberant Usain Bolt, Chinese athletes hardly ever celebrate expressively when they win, but rather keep up the Communist practice of self-criticism. And how the Chinese consider any medal but a gold as losing. From No Fun and Games For Chinese Athletes:

Chinese gymnast Cheng Fei had just won a bronze medal for her performance on the balance beam, less than a week after the Chinese squad beat out the Americans for gold in team competition. But speaking with reporters immediately afterward, all she focused on were the mistakes she had made two days earlier in the floor exercise.

“When I was a beginner, it was normal for me to make mistakes,” an exhausted Cheng said Tuesday. “But I persisted for four years just for these Games, so when I lost on Sunday it was unimaginable for me. I feel totally empty. . . . I don’t have my soul anymore, and am only left with my body.”

Even though China has captured more gold medals than any other country, it is difficult to detect success in the voices of its athletes.

Instead, the athletes’ post-competition comments reveal a world of pressure and unfulfilled expectations, in stark contrast with the more confident, even boastful comments by Western athletes.

When they do well, they fail to boast; and when they do poorly, they can be intensely self-critical. Their attitude, experts say, is largely cultural. . . .

“Our athletes have more pressure than other countries’ athletes. They feel they are really responsible for the country’s image,” said Mao Zhixiong, who teaches sports psychology at Beijing Sports University. “Many Chinese athletes practice their sports not because they like it but because they are selected by the country.”

The Chinese government also tends to reward only first-place finishes. According to a well-known saying here, “There is no first place for literature, there is no second place for kung fu.”

Chinese athletes spend so much time in training that they rarely see their families. Many struggle to find rewarding work after retirement. Foreign athletes, by contrast, often have jobs or other obligations during their careers and train in their spare time.

Diver Chen Ruolin, 15, who finished first in a preliminary round of 10-meter platform diving Wednesday, said cheering crowds were an encouragement to her. But she seemed puzzled when reporters asked if her family was present. After the question was repeated, Chen replied matter-of-factly: “They didn’t come to watch the game. I don’t care about this.”

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Why IS there no first place for literature?

    I feel sympathy for both athletes and coaches. The pressure to produce (in a non-capitalist society) just sounds like no fun at all!

    I understand that the Chinese gym. coaches have to sign non-injury contracts!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Why IS there no first place for literature?

    I feel sympathy for both athletes and coaches. The pressure to produce (in a non-capitalist society) just sounds like no fun at all!

    I understand that the Chinese gym. coaches have to sign non-injury contracts!

  • Bruce

    We have some close friends who grew up in mainland China. In the past they were particularly interested in their daughter getting to know my daughter because they had no idea what “play” was about. They had never played as children, and envied my daughter’s joyous approach to the vocation of play.

    These people weren’t athletes, but were farmers, working from the time they could lift a hoe. The father is now a leading math prof at UW, having managed to take one of those tests the Chinese give to sift and winnow the best and brightest out of the cabbage patch.

    I remember asking another Chinese professor of chemistry if he particularly liked chemistry. He gave me one of those stoic looks. “No. Not particularly.” And then a wry grin: “I did well on the chemistry test that day.”

  • Bruce

    We have some close friends who grew up in mainland China. In the past they were particularly interested in their daughter getting to know my daughter because they had no idea what “play” was about. They had never played as children, and envied my daughter’s joyous approach to the vocation of play.

    These people weren’t athletes, but were farmers, working from the time they could lift a hoe. The father is now a leading math prof at UW, having managed to take one of those tests the Chinese give to sift and winnow the best and brightest out of the cabbage patch.

    I remember asking another Chinese professor of chemistry if he particularly liked chemistry. He gave me one of those stoic looks. “No. Not particularly.” And then a wry grin: “I did well on the chemistry test that day.”

  • Anon

    The athletes are slaves of the Chinese State. Really.

    Boasting, however -is- sin. The rejoicing that the woman’s beach volleyball team showed, on the other hand, and the comfort they gave the losing Chinese team, that was good sportsmanship, and apparently meant from the heart. And did you catch them saying how they were going to have babies now, and they seemed as excited about that as they did in winning their second Olympic gold medal! :-)

  • Anon

    The athletes are slaves of the Chinese State. Really.

    Boasting, however -is- sin. The rejoicing that the woman’s beach volleyball team showed, on the other hand, and the comfort they gave the losing Chinese team, that was good sportsmanship, and apparently meant from the heart. And did you catch them saying how they were going to have babies now, and they seemed as excited about that as they did in winning their second Olympic gold medal! :-)


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