Director's documentary tribute puts athletes on centre stage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 September, 2008, 12:00am

Zhang Zhaoxi is director of the popular 10-part television documentary Our Olympics, which looks at the movement's influence on athletes. Zhang discusses the evolution of Chinese athletes and how that change reflects what the Olympic movement has brought to China.

How did you make your series stand out from the many other sports documentaries being broadcast at the same time? This documentary was about Chinese Olympic athletes. They were always centre stage in the documentary and everything else, such as the country's progress in past decades, was only reflected in their stories. It's my belief that, win or lose, athletes are the ones who have made the Olympic movement in China so colourful.

What were some of the audience's attitudes towards Olympic athletes, especially after some of the big names lost? I think that after China returned to Olympic competition in Los Angeles in 1984, Chinese audiences put a lot of importance on how many gold medals China won because people saw that as a source of national pride to make up for the country's rare international recognition from the 1940s to the early 1980s. So after [champion gymnast] Li Ning failed to regain his title at the 1988 Olympics, he became an immediate target for public frustration. Even when he smiled after his loss he was accused, by state media, of being some sort of disgrace.

You seem to agree that Li Ning handled that pressure very well. In the documentary, you see Li Ning saying: 'I enjoy too many bouquets and too much applause when I win, so it's only fair they boo me when I lose.' Li said it was this attitude that helped him make the shift into a successful business career.

I think what we were trying to say in our series is the Olympics is not just about winning or losing. Something, you can call it the Olympic spirit, lasts longer than the pure competition, or of being an athlete, and it follows you for the rest of your life.

In your documentary, the new generation of athletes, like hurdler Liu Xiang, look fairly relaxed about competition results. I see that as progress in our society, I mean in the attitude towards the results of the Games. Liu said he saw competition in other countries as a chance to travel and was very relaxed. His point partly reflected the growing tolerance towards athletes' performances by Chinese viewers who, over the past two decades, have come to understand that gold is not everything and have begun to enjoy the process of competition.

From the athletes' perspective, they know there will be a tomorrow, no matter what they do in any one competition.

Former Beijing deputy mayor Zhang Baifa also appeared in your documentary. He's a controversial figure considering the role he played in the cabinet of corrupt former Beijing party boss Chen Xitong . It doesn't matter what Mr Zhang did as deputy mayor, but he is the one who helped make the Asian Games in Beijing in 1990 a success, and was the deputy director of Beijing's failed bid in 1993 to host the Olympic Games. His invaluable experience in China's Olympic dream just shows people how tough the road has been for this country in hosting the Games.

How many hours of material did you prepare? We had to organise 500 minutes of material for a 45-minute episode. So in the 10-part series, there was probably 5,000 minutes of tapes produced. You always want to offer your audience as much interesting information as possible, but the slot is small and you really have to cut it short even though you hate doing it.

Any regrets? Many. There is always room to be better, especially in this business. For example, we were unable to interview a psychologist who has helped Chinese athletes tremendously in the past few years. She knows how to calm athletes down and focus them on their events. The doctor was working with some national teams when this documentary was being made, so there was no chance for us to interview her. We also wanted to interview some current national athletes but their extensive training schedules did not give us the opportunity.

Personally, how did you see the preparation for the Beijing Olympics? I think Chinese people really supported the government's efforts to deliver a successful Olympic Games and China itself has developed to a point where the country has all the resources to host a great Olympics.

Do you think we put too much attention and resources into hosting the Games in Beijing? No way. If you know enough history, you will understand why we needed Beijing to host the Olympics. China's women's volleyball team beat the US team on their home court in Los Angeles in the 1984 Games, and many of my generation saw that as a symbol of Chinese revitalisation. If you followed the Games from then all the way to this year, you will not only see how much progress Chinese athletes have made, but how much this country has achieved.

As a director, the four Chinese words Ao Lin Pi Ke [the phonetic Chinese translation for the Olympics] have occupied all my time in the past two years and you can never exaggerate how important these Games have been to me on a personal level.