Despite his failure to run in the 100 metre hurdles in Beijing, Liu Xiang was sent as part of China’s medalist contingent which toured Hong Kong and Macau right after the Olympics got over. The Athens gold medalist broke the hearts of his fans when he pulled out of the race, but his act has set off a debate. Though initially most Chinese felt angry and betrayed, even suggesting that Liu had faked his injury to cover up his lack of form caused by his non-stop modelling assignments (does it sound familiar?), they gradually became sympathetic. Interestingly, officials were the first to show sympathy.
“Do we love Liu Xiang or do we love gold?” was the title of a forum set up by a popular website. A Shanghai journalist wrote that Liu’s ‘defeat’ was actually a victory for a ‘humanistic’ approach to sports, which saw the sportsperson, not the medal, as the first priority. In fact, the Games have resulted in a media debate on the Chinese approach to sports. Why do Western athletes not thank their countries when they win medals, while Chinese athletes do so all the time, was the theme of one article. “There are two kinds of sports in the world,” wrote the author, “one is sports, the other is Chinese sports.” The article went on to say that the Chinese approach to the Olympics, wherein the State trains and then selects athletes and is completely responsible for them, went against the Olympic sprit of participation by everybody. Instead of concentrating on training sportspersons to win medals, the authorities should promote sports for everybody, said the author, a university professor. Surprisingly, this was also the view of the official in charge of initiating reforms in the sports sector. He felt that the declining fitness among Chinese youth was the biggest problem.
Lang Ping, the Chinese coach of the women’s volleyball team of the United States of America (which won silver, while the Chinese won bronze ), who would have been considered a traitor a decade ago, was surprisingly popular with Chinese spectators. After leading the Chinese volleyball team to victory in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, she became a national heroine. But suffocating under the weight of adulation, Lang went to the US to study, came back to China to coach the national team, and finally settled down in the US as the country’s volleyball coach.
In an interview with a popular weekly, Lang elaborated on the basic difference between the Chinese and the US approaches. In the US, said Lang, the primary motive of playing was pleasure; if you didn’t win a medal, life didn’t come to an end. In China, on the other hand, the pressure on the athlete was tremendous because it became a matter of national honour. (The number 1356 on Liu Xiang's vest stood for China’s 1.3 billion people and 56 minorities.) Lang felt the American system made for greater creativity. She admitted that it had taken her a long time to adjust; as an athlete trained under a regimented routine, which made no allowances for the individual’s emotions, she was often at her wits’ end at the unpredictability of American players. “But their cultural strength was stronger, and they have changed me.” Judging the two systems she said, “If you want a relaxed model with the freedom to express your interests and enjoy volleyball, the American system is the best. If you want to get a world championship, the Chinese system is better because the financing, manpower and timing are better guaranteed.’’
While intellectuals debate, the average Chinese is still heady with China’s Olympic performance. And its superiority in this field was glaringly apparent when mainland medalists toured Hong Kong. So poor were the ‘international’ city’s sports facilities, that the mainlanders had to mop up diving boards and warn each other to be careful while performing some of the most popular exercises.