The spectacle of the 2012 London Olympics should be subtitled “The Bashing of the Chinese Athlete.” Yesterday, Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times published a much-discussed piece called “Heavy Burden on Athletes Takes Joy Away From China’s Olympic Success.” In it, all kinds of “concerns” are raised about the toll “the nation’s draconian sports system” is taking on the country’s athletes. It tells tales of poverty, loneliness and despair amongst China’s sports stars once the cheering has stopped. Their athletes are described as being exploited by an unfeeling government monolith that acted as a surrogate family until they were no longer of any use. Parents of China’s Olympians are quoted saying, “We accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong to us. I don’t even dare think about things like enjoying family happiness.” Other parents tell of not being able to recognize their own children after years apart.
The other dominant story about China are the continuing unfounded allegations that 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen took performance-enhancing drugs to win gold. Executive Director of the American Swim Coaches Association John Leonard called Shiwen’s world-record 400-meter individual medley swim “disturbing.” He is also continuing to describe her closing freestyle leg of 58.68 seconds as “impossible.”
There have been a series of ugly articles about Shiwen, none uglier perhaps than a piece by UK’s Daily Mail’s David Jones titled “Forging of the Mandarin Mermaid: How Chinese children are taken away from their home and brutalized into future Olympians.” Not “trained” but “brutalized.”
Then there was Bob Costas’s handling of the issue on NBC, which involved the raising of an unfounded accusation on the basis of it’s being news and then using it to advance the allegation. I’m surprised Costas didn’t turn to special guest Michelle Bachmann to speak about rumors of Shiwen’s time in the Muslim Brotherhood. There is zero evidence but Shiwen is guilty in the Western media with no avenue to prove her innocence.
None of this is to defend China’s state-run system of producing athletes. But it seems rather painfully obvious why we are seeing this tidal wave of suspicion, drug allegations and concern for the “children.” China is the chief economic rival in the world to the United States. Just like during the cold war, the Olympics have become a proxy war where “medal counts” connote more than bragging rights but are a comment on the health of a nation. China is rivaling the United States in medal counts so its dominance has to be explained in as critical, ugly and even as racist a way as possible. The message is that the Chinese have medals because they just don’t love their kids.
If the New York Times is that concerned about the brutalization of young athletes, that battle begins at home. US athletes don’t have to navigate a state-run athletic system but something perhaps far more pernicious. Unlike China, US athletes get no government subsidies whatsoever. Their number one obstacle to the medal stand isn’t ability but poverty. As one study by the USA Track and Field Foundation demonstrated, “Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.).”