The last time I saw one nation plunge into a stunning outpouring of grief was when Princess Diana died. I could understand that. England at that time clung to the princess as their one great icon. Now Liu Xiang’s inability to run the 110 m hurdles has plunged the whole of China into a grief that is so similar. What causes a nation of over a billion people to invest such emotion in one athlete running one race ? After all , with 39 gold medals in the bag already, China is way ahead already in the total medal count already. What does one race matter ?
The last time I was in Beijing I noticed this good looking boyish face adorn every hoarding on the streets. Selling just about everything. If you think Sachin Tendulkar was a poster boy for India – multiply that by a 1000 times and you would understand the feeling towards Liu Xiang in China. The estimated potential earnings for Liu Xiang if he won this gold medal were over $ 160 million – making this race one of the highest financial stakes for any event in the history of sport. Why do all the hopes, all the national pride of a blliion Chinese get placed on the shoulders of one young man, and every other brilliant achievement pale into significance. With this defeat, for the Chinese people, the Olympics are as good as over. And I use the word defeat deliberately. For the Chinese see this as a personal and national defeat. Why ?
For one, we always admire individual achievement as supreme. We need stars to look up to, to admire, to worship. That is true in sports just as it is true in entertainment. The Beijing Olympics will always be remembered for the 8 gold medal tally of Mike Phelps. Just like the Munich Olympics belonged to Mark Spitz.
But what about all the other 39 Chinese that won Gold Medals ?
I believe the answer lies in the fact that this was a track event – where the US has traditionally dominated. For the Chinese people it is not enough to be the greatest rising Industrial power in the world. It is not enough to have hosted the greatest opening event in the history of the Olympics. The Chinese psyche still holds memories of Western domination, of the opium wars, of the exploitation of the Chinese people by the Western powers (and the Japanese of course).
Don’t be fooled by the rapturous welcome that the Chinese fans gave to the US basketball team, or to David Beckham’s popularity in China. Talk to people on the streets about Chinese history and the opium wars and you will get a sense fo the resentment the Chinese hold on to still. Chinese sense of nationalism is far stronger than – say – the Indian. It’s what drives the newly confident Chinese people.
So it was essential for them that Liu Xiang won the gold medal in a event traditionally dominated by the Americans.
And what about the pressure of winning on a young man carrying the burden of all the hopes of a billion people ? Well, in the world of commercialization of sport I would say that at a potential prize money of $ 160 million, Liu Xiang knew that he had to perform. His array of coaches and advisors and trainers knew the stakes they were playing for. Many in China are now left wondering whether this commercialization of sport is what destroyed Liu Xiang. As we do in India about our ‘brand name’ cricketers.
But there must come a time when we Asians cease to mirror ourselves from a colonial past.