Why Liu Xiang’s exit from the olympics plunged China into grief

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.
Shekhar

10 Responses to “Why Liu Xiang’s exit from the olympics plunged China into grief”

  1. Yang says:

    Well, i think the last time I saw a huge pouring of national grief in during the Sichuan earthquake, i’d like to point out.
    To this Liu Xiang quitting issue, I still support him, despite I have never imagined he would pull out the race, but he’s the one who created history in China, ie his contribution’s great enough already. I won’t blame him at all. And I’ll probably wait to see if he can still compete in 2012.
    And to the victimhood mentality, I think it’s not a bad thing to have it because it’s a driving force for many of Chinese trying their best to be the top in various fields. And I have no respect for their liberal interventionalism (only 100% resentment and despise if not obstructing it to make them feel the heat) they trying to propagate nowadays, they’d better trash their grandparents tombs first because they are the sons and daughters of those illiberal aggressors. And has not Dalai Lama’s a “living god” in Tibetan buddhism, we wouldn’t even care how the West feel and had got rid of him ages ago.
    Having said that, I’m living a realpolitik world, to coexist and extend good relationship with the West is a big and prime task that China needs to do, which I fully support, for our own sake, but with clear boundaries.

  2. Himanshu says:

    Dear Shekhar,
    In all honesty I thought of Deepak’s “Law of Detachment.” Too much attachment to any result, the gold here, led to something going wrong. What I have learnt in life is that you can’t force results in life – just do your best and hope for the best. Detachment keeps us focused as we never got too overconfident and also keeps us free to do our best.
    Best Regards,
    Himanshu

  3. DQ says:

    What say of the sexual harrassment of an intelligence officer in Delhi m/s Bhatia?
    is sexual harrassment going to be one form of terrorism in India?
    Am I proud to be an Indian?
    ‘NO’
    We are sick, mentally sick!! Booming economy is not what I call growth and vision!!! The higher authorites are making our system hollow! Fie! Fie!! We call our land ‘Mother India’ and yet no sufficient laws to retard rape!!
    The probe begins, Ha! I await a black verdict!!
    We would rather fight over prices of onions and aloo, than human rights!
    DQ!

  4. DQ says:

    ‘Sexual harrasment is as high as any form of rape’
    it degrades and emotionally rapes a person of her dignity!!!

  5. izaq singh says:

    Mr. Kapur,
    Well i do agree that in track and field events chinese do not pose such threat at present, the events which was traditionally dominated by the U.S. until Usian Bolt thunderbolted the Bird Nest. Even U.S. is finding it hard to survive here now in these events which is supposed to be the richest harvest for medals.
    Lu Xiang was a very surprising winner who came out of nowehere to win 110m gold in athens, beating compatriot U.S. atheletes. So, naturally he became the chinese posterboy and was still regarded a superstar before his painful exit. But i think people there still support him coz they think he might have won one more gold if he had not been injured. They might have realised by now that the superstar status is not permanent. They have other suerstars too like the sexy diving Diva Gou Jingjing and badminton superstar Lin Dan. Both of them were gold strikers.
    As far as commercialization of sports is concerned , yes it has done both good and bad. It may put unncessary pressure on the atheletes but we also cannot rule out the earning rights of these atheletes. It’s just so result oriented. It’s just like thin red line between confidence and overconfidence- if u succeed then u were confident and if u don’t u were overconfident. It has everything to do with success only. Lu Xiang might have been a victim of this so called commercialization but there r other instances where the effects were different. Take the case of australian Diva swimmer Stephanie Rice. She was accused of diverting her mind from the sports to Ads. modeling when she featured on the cover page of leading Australian Men’s health magazine posing for underwear and lingries. But she won three gold medals in Beijing. Even U.S. golden boy Michael Phelps has featured on many magazine cover pages posing with women in lingries.
    And the victimisation mentality, well China like India is also a developing nation. So if this mentality is the driving force behind their fast and rapid development, then India should have it too. U urself admitted that chinese sense of nationalism is far stronger than Indians. Both countries have almost equal past regarding colonization.
    So the bottom line is,we should 1st reach that status-quo of the developed nations then only we should cease to mirror ourselves from a colonial past.
    Izaq

  6. it’s funny how Olympics has always been used to score political and ideological points. Am reminded of JC Ownes and the Berlin Olympics – how he shattered to smithereens the aryan supriority theory by winning the maximum golds.
    No, sir, once colonised, always colonised, in some aspect or other. We are politically decolonised only. Economically, it is unrealistic to expect in the present day interdependent economic odrer. the various systems in our country still reeks of the colonial days. and psychologically, we are still in the grip of colonial hangover.
    till India becomes a massive super power – politically, economically, technologically and militarily – till that day when our BPL level comes down to zero, till that day when this country calls the shots in world affairs, we’ll continue to view ouself in the colonial mirror.
    will such a day come?

  7. Horst Vollmann says:

    Dear Shekhar:
    I believe the Chinese subconsciously are grieving for the failure of their own personal aspirations. Every time people collectively latch on to the destiny of an athleteís accomplishments or failures they are secretly becoming part of an identification process. They are actually becoming the athlete or in Princess Dianaís case the social barrier that separated them from her was removed through her death. She had become one of them, like a close trusted friend.
    Naturally, there is the element of national pride that can quickly mutate into mass hysteria, even into grief as though that particular athlete had just passed away. The talking heads in China will probably analyze Liu Xiang’s inability to run the 110 m hurdles right down to its tiniest particles of insignificance and eventually even his staunchest fans will find their way back into their daily lives that of course have remained utterly untouched by all this collective huff.
    In absence of a Mike Phelps figure the Chinese people all had latched on to poor Liu Xiang to find a common denominator to let them express their pride in their country. Here was a man who could beat the mighty western track athletes. They knew that their dominance in gymnastics and the more lightweight disciplines such as trampoline, diving, table tennis and badminton would not cut the mustard. There had to be more athletic gravitas that would not just elicit a condescending smile from the rest of the world when their Olympic champions climbed up to the victorís podium to receive medals whose weight was just too light.
    When the Olympic flame has been doused and the games have become a faint memory China will again present itself as the rising giant in other more potent disciplines, culturally, economically, scientifically, even spiritually and here the gold medals will grudgingly be applauded by an ever increasing envious rest of the world.
    Asia can safely tuck away that mirror of self-recrimination. The colonial past has just slinked into oblivion.
    With kind regards.
    Horst

  8. Arvind says:

    Going by the amount of fraud at the games, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they were collecting samples to test for doping and that is why this guy pulled out.
    Earlier, a Chinese rower came late for his heat and claimed that he believed his race was the next one (actually he was late for that too). That must have been another of those races where samples were being collected.
    The breeze for the flags was fake, the fireworks were CGI generated, the gymnasts are underaged, the girl who sang at the opening ceremony pulled off a Milli Vanilli, the cheerleaders are faked, the torch on Everest was faked, the claim that 6.8 million tickets were sold out is bogus and the 56 ethnic minority children were all Han Chinese from an acting group.
    So the fireworks must have been Steven Spielberg’s contribution before he pulled out!

  9. Mani says:

    Hi Mr. Kapur
    This is an interesting discussion and I was reminded of a brief piece I wrote several years ago questioning why we Indians are so enamored of our film and cricket stars and if they were the only heroes we had and why the feats of other sports person or people who have excelled in other fields nationally and internationally or have gone beyond the ordinary in doing their duties, went relatively unnoticed in India. Why we also overlook the contribution from our armed forces and the everyday heroes in our midst say like the doctors in Ahmedabad who recently displayed extraordinary integrity and courage in carrying out their professional duties in the wake of serial blasts while being in the line of fire them selves. Simply that. Would we get up, rejoice and raise a toast to them or would we just forget because they are not dressed in designer wear and not clamoring for attention on bill boards or deploying marketing ploys to declare they are the KINGS/ BADSHAHS
    As for Lu Xiang, I think the fact that he’s excelled in a sporting event that was considered a forte of Americans and that he is affable and charming led to his popularity and status as a national hero. Besides, as you mention, his immense popularity is led by a strong sense of Chinese nationalism, which I think is strongly guided by the central leadership and also some socio-economic factors. Chinese communities all over the world have retained strong cultural identity and strong ties with the motherland( as they call it). I find that this sense of identity is not diluted by other co-existing identities like being a hakka, a shanghainese, a cantonese etc. They are all Chinese after all and have this underlying sense of unity even though an elite Hong Kong Chinese may be slightly arrogant and regard their mainland Chinese compatriots with disdain as being too eager or not so polished etc. Whereas in India, we have multiple identities, we are also highly individualistic in comparison and wear our regional/religious identities very strongly and this can often be responsible for our varied reactions to national issues, national heroes etc. For eg: from what I have observed, mainly north Indians and that too people from Punjab seem to have been most affected and continue to be traumatized by the partition. As we move away from that region, that sentiment gets dissipated and people seem indifferent. And they have their own individual stories to tell.
    Plus, I think the central governance in China has been extremely successful in deploying nationalism as a tool to spur their people into action, be it learning English, dining etiquettes, or conducting business. It serves as an effective propaganda tool, whether it is Tibet, democracy in Hong Kong, or Olympics itís all a matter of national pride and solidarity. As they say it is all about saving the face. Sports have often been mobilized for this purpose and Chinese take it seriously unlike India where except for cricket there is little government support for sports, and success is the result of individual fortitude, perseverance and family support. In this regard our successes are often more individualistic.
    I am not sure if commercialization was a factor in Lu Xiangís case or if he just stumbled under so much pressure. He stills retains his super star status though, from what I gather from speaking with friends. For India, I think we should allow ourselves to be moved by the efforts and success of people from diverse array of fields and sports and not just cricket and movies. Its already happening in terms of attitude and especially amongst the youth who now aspire to be like Mr. Ratan Tata or Mr. Narayanmoorthi or idolize late Kalpana Chawla or ex-president Dr. Abdul Kalaam Azad, but itís the media and marketing agencies that have to capture the changing pulse.
    If it was China, Abhinav Bindra would be the next poster boy but in India it is not likely to happen. I hope it does.

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