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.