Let’s see what you’ve got, Asia! Who will stake a claim to fame at the Winter Olympics?
The names are largely unknown in Pyeongchang, but there has never been a better time for someone fresh and exciting to capture the world’s attention
LeBron James may not be the greatest basketball player of all time, but he is certainly close. Roger Federer, however, is the greatest tennis player of all time. Both these seminal athletes have it all. Still, do we really need a medal around their neck to properly cement their legacy because their omnipresent greatness now also includes Olympic glory?
Thankfully, there is something called the Winter Olympics. Welcome to the “no-name games”, where the only “Dream Team” is the anonymous Korean women’s hockey squad. The XXIII Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are upon us and perhaps the biggest mystery is whose name will be on the world’s lips three weeks from now.
It most certainly will not be someone with 30 million Instagram followers. There are a few known commodities, such as veteran US skier Lindsey Vonn. But minus the gaggle of NHL stars, this will be a largely unknown collection of athletes and isn’t that just delightfully disorienting. Indeed, making names out of no-names is what the Olympics was once all about.
The timing could not be any more perfect for that fresh performer to be Asian as well. Maybe precocious snowboard phenom Chloe Kim? Telegenic and bright, the 17-year-old Kim is a hypnotic performer who naturally speaks perfect Korean and even flawless French. But this daughter of Korean parents was born and raised in California.
Mirai Nagasu is also a hot favourite for a figure skating medal. However, Mirai, which means future in Japanese, did not grow up in Tokyo or Osaka. Like Kim, she was born in California to Asian immigrants. Great story, no doubt, and a true perpetuation of the American dream similar in scope to former US ice skating diva Michelle Kwan, whose parents hail from Hong Kong. But any success for these potential breakout stars will still be draped in the Stars and Stripes.
Here in this time zone, heretofore known as the “Olympic Time Zone” for the next four years, prime time will mean just that. As we swing from South Korea to Japan in two years, followed by China two years later, Olympic viewers in Europe and North America will be wiping sleep out of their eyes at some godforsaken hour.
But here, it is most definitely on. So what do you have, Asia? Yes, big boy economies now offering the type of opportunity that should keep Asians in Asia. But how about some indigenous faces making a global sporting impact to satiate social media behemoths like WeChat and Weibo, where they count users in the billions, not millions.
Of course, all eyes will be on the Korean women’s unified hockey team, featuring players from both South and North Korea. Still, ranked number 22 in the world, and with no chance of a medal, this team is more about politics than sport.
The South Koreans will, however, be formidable once again in short-track speedskating, while Japan is always a threat in ski jumping and figure skating. Yet both countries would desperately love a breakout performer in another discipline.
And then, of course, there is China. “That’s a sleeping dragon,” Napoleon said over 200 years ago. “Let him sleep. If he awakens, he will shake the world.”
Well the dragon has awoken, it’s time to start shaking. Mainland athletes are every bit revered and rewarded these days as their western contemporaries. Tennis star Li Na, who makes millions in endorsements, has a healthy 22 million followers on Weibo, while swimming sensation Sun Yang has a very LeBron-like 32 million-plus.
Not surprisingly, it’s a different story for winter Olympians. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, China sent 412 athletes who captured 70 medals. Two years earlier, they sent 66 athletes to Sochi and brought home nine medals.
They have sent 81 participants to South Korea and while there is no comparison between the scope and size of Summer and Winter Games, the medals are still the same colour. While China will do well in speed skating and features figure skating pairs world champion Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, someone unexpected needs to rise up to give them the “Beijing Bounce” ahead of the 2022 Games. It is certainly not without precedent.
At the 2004 Games in Athens, Liu Xiang shocked China and the world when he won the men’s 110-metre hurdles gold. He became a national hero overnight and the face of the 2008 Beijing Games. Who knows, history could repeat itself and an obscure alpine skier might light the country afire.
Anything is possible, particularly since they are not competing against the LeBrons and Federers of the sporting world for face time.
The canvas is blank, the names largely unknown. There has never been a better time for someone fresh and exciting to fill the void.