It was wrenching to watch. China’s Wu Jingbiao, 23, broke down on live television after competing in the men’s 56-kilogram weightlifting event (video here). In a live television interview with China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV he said, “I feel terribly guilty for disappointing my country, the Chinese weightlifting team, and all the people who supported me.” He paused to fight back tears. “I’m sorry!”
His profuse apology and obvious pain may have made at least some sense if he had failed in some spectacularly shameful way. But that was not the case. Wu won the silver medal. Yet for him it was a prize so far from gold that it called for self-flagellation.
Almost immediately in China, on microblogs and in state-run media, a debate began over whether Wu’s reaction was justified. The vast majority of responses conveyed two things: sadness for the distraught young athlete and anger at China’s national drive for gold at any cost.
One netizen on Weibo wrote: “Wu makes us once again witness the dreadful gold medal obsession.” Another: “The Olympic champion is still the political achievement of sports officials, and still is a good product that can be sold to market.”
The Olympics have always carried political undertones. But few countries in modern history have equated Olympic gold with an idealized global persona in the way that China has. And although the country may be starting to recognize the downside of its obsession—young children separated from their parents and sent to “medal factories” to train for years; little to no aid for even gold medal winners to pursue a second career or education after their athletics comes to a finish; the list goes on—the old attitude still dominates. During the press conference following the women’s 10-meter air-rifle competition, Chinese reporters spoke over each other as they mobbed the gold medal winner Yi Siling. Yu Dan, the bronze medal winner, may as well have been invisible.
Still, the very fact of an online conversation in China criticizing what is by all accounts a national policy is notable as well. In 2008, the equivalent of China’s “Twittersphere” was operating nowhere near the capacity it is today. Now the netizen community is not only coming to the defense of Wu Jingbiao in droves—his remarks were forwarded more than 20,000 times in the 24 hours after he made them and garnered more than 30,000 comments—but it is also openly admonishing state-run media on behalf of another athlete.
Seventeen-year-old weightlifter Zhou Jun drew a barrage of media scorn for failing three attempts to lift the starting weight in the 53-kilogram category. “Her name will be associated with this embarrassing record forever,” said the Independent Times newspaper in Guangdong Province. The Metropolis Times, in the southwestern city of Kunming, called it “the most shameful defeat from Chinese female weightlifters.”
Zhou’s countrymen came to her defense.
One Weibo user wrote, “How can you say she is a shame? What were you doing when you were 17? Compared to her, you were nothing!” Others admonished national sports officials for sending her to the Olympics before she was ready to perform competitively at that level. The City Times, based in Yunnan Province, issued a front-page apology for using the word “humiliating” in reference to Zhou Jun. And in response to Wu Jingbiao, the official Xinhua Agency said China should put less emphasis on gold medals, saying, “Losers are also worthy of our respect and concern.”
Recently I spoke to the artist and activist Ai Weiwei about China and the Olympic Games. He became famous in China for helping to design the so-called Bird’s Nest stadium, the soaring feat of Chinese architecture that became a symbol of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. After the stadium was built, Ai boycotted the entire event, accusing the Chinese government as using the games as nothing more than propaganda.
His comments on his decision to boycott the Beijing games seem relevant today.
“The whole games had nothing to do with ordinary people’s emotion and their activities,” he told me. “There is no real joy.”
Ai, himself a prolific Tweeter, said that today, in his mind, nothing has changed.
Perhaps not. But a conversation has started.