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Olympic gold, global power

Helene Elliott’s column, “China is poised to win medal race at Olympics,” is probably right. But why does it matter?

Because it’s always been about gold -- and silver and bronze -- at the Summer Olympic Games. This year is no different. Sure, there’s the usual talk of Olympic spirit and friendship among nations, but it’s the medal count that seems to matter; it’s the medal count that gets recorded in the record books. In the post-WWll era, the U.S. has won the gold medal count in more than half of the Games. And since 1996, team U.S.A. has been especially dominant, winning the gold medal count -- and the overall medal count -- in the last three Summer Games.

Chinese party leaders would like nothing more than to see this American dominance brought to an end, on their home turf and by the home team. Since the Sydney Games, Chinese authorities have made no secret of their desire to boost their gold medal count -- and to challenge the preeminence of the U.S. squad. “Project 119,” launched in 2001, indicates the importance they attach to their Olympic hopes. Its aim is to win gold in sports where gold medals are especially plentiful but where China traditionally has been weak: track and field, swimming and aquatics. One hundred nineteen gold medals were awarded in these areas at Sydney, hence the project’s name (the figure is 122 for the upcoming Games).

Under the auspices of Project 119, legions of coaches and trainers fanned out to villages and cities across China, searching for young boys and girls whose skills and physical characteristics indicate strong potential in a particular sport. The recruits are then sent, at state expense, to live at one of the more than 300 sports academies in the country where coaches, hired from the world over and often at great expense, oversee their rigorous training.

China naturally is eager to see such efforts pay off. And, according to Olympic pundits, that payoff may come as early as this year. On June 23, PriceWaterhouseCoopers issued a report predicting that China would take home more overall medals (88) than any other country in this year’s Olympics, beating the U.S. by one. Other prognosticators have pronounced that China will lead in the gold medal count as well.

I care little about the medal count of this year’s -- or any year’s -- Olympic Games. But reactions of the American people to the count, especially if predictions favoring the Chinese team hold, are of interest. For reactions to China as an emerging Olympic power tell us something about how Americans feel about China the emerging global power. Reactions will vary widely, of course, but here are a few I would expect to surface:

There will be admiration for China’s dedication, for the country’s focused pursuit of Olympic excellence. And that admiration will be all the greater for the speed with which the Chinese have become competitive with the perennial sports powers -- the U.S., Russia and Germany.

There will be contempt for a Soviet-style sports industry that recruits its Olympians as young children, taking them away from family and academic studies for years at a time. As with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries in the 1950s through 1980s, China will come in for criticism for its harsh, “win-at-all-costs” treatment of young athletes. The athletes will be sympathetically regarded as pawns of the party and state; sports will seem a loveless profession thrust on them by a government seeking merely to showcase its own superiority.

There will be complaints about China’s irresponsible stewardship of the Earth, about the “rush to development” at the cost of the environment. Sure, some will say, the Chinese have built incomparable sports venues, a sophisticated infrastructure and a burgeoning economy, but at what price? Dirty air and dirty water that put foreign athletes at a great disadvantage -- and even at risk. This is air that required U.S. athletes to set up training sites in South Korea and Japan and to don carbon filtration masks the moment they landed in Beijing. This is air so foul that marathon record-holder Haile Gebrselassie passed on the 2008 marathon event, commenting that his health and his life were of greater importance than a gold medal. Yes, some will say, acclimated Chinese athletes had a distinct advantage.

There will be suspicion. China has a well-known doping history that goes back to the early 1990s, when large numbers of Chinese swimmers and track and field stars tested positive for steroids. If 2008 proves to be China’s year, some will no doubt wonder: Were the gold-winning feats of Chinese athletes boosted by performance-enhancing drugs? Getting one’s hands on steroids in China is no trick, especially for locals who know their way around; China, after all, is one of the world’s largest producers of them. The trick rather is finding newly designed performance-enhancing concoctions that can go undetected even by state-of-the-art testing facilities, like those constructed for the 2008 Games. The science of dope testing simply cannot keep pace with the science of dope production. The question of whether Chinese sprinters or swimmers or rowers, especially the outstanding ones, were doping without detection during the Games is sure to arise.

There will be fear. China, no doubt, intends its Olympic superiority to symbolize the country’s new global superiority. It will be a proclamation that China has emerged from two centuries of domination by the imperial powers of the West. China’s Olympic competitiveness will suggest to some Americans an economic competitiveness or, still more threateningly, a military competitiveness. And, if China is becoming stronger economically and militarily, we must be growing weaker.

We won’t know the outcome of the gold and overall medal counts until Aug. 24. But if Helene Elliott, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and other Olympic soothsayers turn out to be right, I worry that the nationalistic feelings driving China’s Olympic ambitions will more than meet their match in a xenophobic fear that the U.S. is losing its “rightful” place in the world.

Daniel K. Gardner is the Dwight W. Morrow Professor of History at Smith College.

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