The Underdog Comes Out On Top

Chinese Are More Puzzled Than Pompous About Their Pile Of Gold

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P.T. Black
P.T. Black
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Bravo! China's Olympians performed brilliantly. I traveled a bit last week outside of Beijing, and no matter where I went (Guangzhou, Wuhan, Shanghai) there always seemed to be a television screen with a smiling Chinese athlete leaning over to accept a gold medal. People have been glued to the screens around the country, and lustily cheered on their athletes.

It may be my imagination, but I'm noticing something unexpected about the reaction to China's triumphs. As the gold medals accumulated, local people came up with increasingly strenuous dismissals of China's success. Some said the lead in golds was temporary and was only because China's strongest sports were scheduled at the front of the calendar. Others said China got lucky.

One man in Shanghai last week assured me that even though China has a few good athletes, the average American is surely much stronger at sports than the average Chinese. I've heard lots of excuses and rationalizations about why this historic glut of gold was not really happening, wouldn't continue, or doesn't matter anyway. What's going on? Why weren't people shouting from the rooftops?

Is it because I am American, and people are afraid to hurt my feelings? Perhaps, though hasn't stopped many people before. Maybe it's humility. Chinese culture does expect a certain amount of humility from individuals.

But I'm not convinced that applies to the accomplishments of the nation. I remember a museum in Nanjing that claimed China invented the foot, thus enabling walking. I have a cookbook that gives China credit for discovering food.

Another explanation is that it is bad manners to trounce the competition while hosting an Olympics. That makes more sense, but it seems strange that hosting etiquette would be more powerful than good old fashioned national pride.

Some local people quietly said China's wins don't really count as much, because they are in familiar sports like diving and table tennis. Well sure, but isn't that how the Olympics works? Doesn't every country choose a few areas and excel in those? When was the last time you saw a Tongan on the balance beam?

I think the confused head-scratching comes from honest surprise and expectation that, somehow, the U.S. would roar from the back and grab the rest of the golds during the final week. It was possible, of course, and would have made a great story.

But it also seems to me that people here aren't really prepared for the reality of being the dominant sports power on the planet. Part of that comes from a long-standing habit of emphasizing China's underdog status.

The (pre-limp) appeal of Liu Xiang was that he was the first Asian to win gold in track, a charismatic underdog who made us believe anything is possible. Proof that China can win medals! But this year, the proof is everywhere.

Another factor were the dramatic flubs and missteps of the American team. The dropped batons and skimmed hurdles make up the drama that makes the Olympics so spellbinding. Those mistakes are compensated by fantastic performances by other nations. Jamaica, I am looking at you. The result is a de-concentration of medals in many of America's strongest areas.

On another topic, among my mother's many teachings, one that she hammered into me was to always say admit when you are wrong. Well, I am wrong. Or, more accurately, I stand corrected.

Last week, Beijing's no-joy Olympics officially became fun. Credit the change to the clouds that dissipated the heat, or to relaxed government attitudes towards scalping tickets or to the increased access to the Olympic Green.

Whatever caused the change, the Olympics finally turned into a good time. Crowds were rowdy, sponsor pavilions were well attended, and beers were consumed with gusto. Even hurdler Liu Xiang's deeply disappointing walk-off was taken in stride.

The parties picked up and (best of all?), when many of the athletes finished their events on the track or in the pool, they dipped their toes in Beijing's nightlife. There's really nothing cooler than dancing next to a fencing medalist. (Is that an epee, or are you just happy to see me?)

Beijing, I salute you!

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