China, and the banality of excellence

Chinese athletes are making hay in London. So why can’t you tell?


China is crushing competition in London, but there was something pitiable yesterday in the flat responses of diver Wu Minxia, who won her fifth Olympic medal alongside three-metre springboard partner He Zi. “It feels normal,” Wu told a news conference. A couple of awkward seconds ticked by before she leaned toward the mic and added: “I really don’t have that many emotions.”

Behold the paradox behind China’s drive to dominate the Games. Like Soviet authorities during the Cold War, Beijing clearly believes in the power of sport to uplift the masses and boost national pride. The athletes themselves, however, are taught that emotion is their enemy. They fear that overt displays of it will be interpreted as a sign they put themselves ahead of the team.

Wu probably got a pat on the back from her coach for keeping things on the level. But her response was at odds with the country’s new ethic of self-promotion, and you could sense the anguish within the flock of Chinese propagandists on hand to record her exaltation at the post-competition news conference. Wu’s impassiveness stood in sharp contrast to the unabashed joy of the silver medallists, Abby Johnston and Kelci Bryant of the United States, who openly voiced admiration for Wu and her partner.

That left Chinese reporters to supply the elation themselves. Xinhua, the state news service described Wu as “excited” by being “roared on by a capacity crowd.” It went on to quote her scripted-sounding statement thanking Chinese fans who showed up at the event. China Daily, the country’s state-owned international newspaper, labeled Wu “the new diving queen” in a headline.

Suffice to say, this sort of elan can seem forced. The same issue of China Daily featured a Page 1 feature proclaiming basketball player Yi Jianlian “a true leader”—even though  his team got creamed 97-81 by Spain in its opening game. There’s an inside story that quotes, at striking length, one London man who was cheering on Chinese athletes at a weightlifting competition. Another report celebrates the ready availability of Chinese food in London, which is surely not a surprise to anyone inside or outside the Middle Kingdom.

Not all Chinese athletes sublimate their joy, of course. But the disconnect between their demeanours and the desperate enthusiasm of their country’s press is jarring. If China really is reaching out the world, surely its athletes should be allowed to show they’re human.





China, and the banality of excellence

  1. You must have missed the swimmer Sun Yang’s chest-pounding and screaming in the pool.

    Your blog itself is quite banal – nothing is new or nuanced. Same “Chinese are inscrutable” rant. Let me give you a good essay question: Chinese divers used to give a bow to spectators after every dive. Not any more. Why?

    • I watched a little of the men’s synchronized diving and saw that the Chinese pair bowed after their dive. I thought it was quite a lovely moment.

  2. The only thing that looks to be “forced” is your article, Charlie! Did the editors or your employers told you to dig up anything to slight the Chinese?! So far, compared to the Western media, the Chinese propaganda machine looks amateurish.

  3. The word “banality” just reeks of racism.

    • why does it reek of racism?

  4. The author is so pathetic. Trying to belittle China. It makes me laugh (and proud) to be a Chinese.

  5. How does the sour grapes taste, Charlie? This article is as much of an embarrassment for this Canadian magazine as multiculturalism is a pride for Canada. Good you don’t represent Canada!

  6. This blog is trash. Get a life, you idiot.

    Each athlete has his/her own personality. Wu Mingxia has always been low-key. Others are quite excitable. Sun Yang sure showed a lot of emotions.

  7. Charlie, again, some of the Chinese athletes “you can’t tell” but many can if you have ever paid attention. The same goes with Canadian athletes. Yesterday when CBC was interviewing Canadian female gymnastics team, all the girls seemed to be very excitable except for one, so the interviewer never bothered to ask her any question while all the rest got a chance to talk in front of the camera. Yes, Chinese are also human beings and have individualities. You will find those qualities if you keep things in perspective – try not to essentialize: China is changing, Chinese athletes are changing, everything else is changing.

  8. I think Mr. Gillis is making some wild assumptions and extrapolations after one too many viewing of “The Manchurian Candidate”. :) The idea that an omnipotent and somewhat sinister Chinese central government churning out an army of robotic athelets devoid of emotions is mainly a product of Mr. Gillis’ overactive imagination based upon some suspect and seriously outdated caricactures from the bygone Cold War era rather than anything rooted in reality.
    As for the apparent divergent reactions between the Chinese divers and the American divers, let me offer up some more prosaic and dare I say, more rational explanation: The Chinese side is the reigning Olympic champion and an internationally recognized diving diving powerhouse. For them to win the gold medal is a matter of course, much like LeBron James winning MVP for a game or Tiger Woods winning a PGA tournament during his heydays. To get overly animated when you are the undisputed champ in your sport would be rather silly and unbefitting your stature. On the other hand, the Americans haven’t medaled in a diving event for over two decades! They were the underdogs, and for the underdog to medal in an event after a two-decade dry spell, well, that does deserve some animated excitement! :)

  9. Have you heard a Chinese say – search a bone in a egg? It seems that this author wants to image there is a bone in the egg.

Sign in to comment.