China stifles Olympic athletes' own drive for success

Michael Chugani says China proves nothing by drilling its athletes to win Olympic gold; victory will mean more if it's achieved through their own drive

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 2:10pm

Sports don't interest me at all, but I made it a point to watch the agonising end, yet again, to Liu Xiang's quest for Olympic gold. Dare I discuss why I think the talented athlete couldn't deliver the medal his country so craved? I ask because, as a non-Chinese, I am sticking my neck out to where it doesn't belong.

To give an example, I recently discussed in the Chinese-language media the appearance and habits of mainland visitors. A few hate e-mails followed. Some accused me of racism. As a Hong-Kong-born Indian, I found that particularly amusing. Aren't we supposed to be on the receiving end of it here?

If a Hong Kong Chinese had discussed the difference in mannerisms between mainland visitors and locals, as many have already done, the charge of racism would not have been made. The logic - questionable in my view - is that it is not possible to be racist towards your own race. But I'll put that aside for now.

While most on the mainland are trying to deal with the emotional trauma of lost national pride, some are finally daring to say it is precisely the obsession with Olympic gold that caused Liu's downfall. I agree with that, but as a non-Chinese I must tread carefully.

When you rid yourself of an inferiority complex, it doesn't mean you must replace it with a superiority complex. China had long rid itself of its past shackles of foreign domination and bullying. It is now a great nation and poised to be even greater.

Yet it lacks the confidence to give that greatness free rein to find its place in the world. It feels it needs to force that greatness on the world by doing things such as antagonising neighbours with territorial claims and drilling its own athletes into becoming robots programmed to win gold medals.

American swimmer Michael Phelps won his record haul of gold medals not because his country piled pressure on him to do so but because his own desire to win burned inside him. Sure, he proudly did it for country too, but failure would not have resulted in national soul-searching or shame. Failure would have disappointed his countrymen but they would simply have said: "You win some, you lose some."

One could, of course, argue that China's superb showing at the London Olympics proves the means it is using are achieving the end it desires. But that end comes at a cost. Its athletes are robbed of their individuality, their own drive, and the true meaning of winning and losing. They are driven by the state to bring home the gold. Failure brings the guilt of having shamed the nation.

As I have said before in the case of national education, why not employ means that drive the self-desire to produce the ends that are sought? Why force love of country through national education? Why not let that love grow naturally and freely?

Likewise, why not let athletes freely find and hone their talents? Why not let them win through their own drive, instead of weighing them down with the expectations of the state? Let them find their own dream of winning gold rather than drilling that dream into them. The gold they bring home this way will have far greater meaning.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host.