Monday, August 18, 2008

A 110-meter trail of tears

Work, such as it is, came wheezing halt Monday morning as the staff and one "foreign expert" (me) gathered in front of a TV to watch the 110 meter hurdles competition in the Bird's Nest at 11.40am. The draw was Athens gold medalist Liu Xiang, on whose buff shoulders rested the weight of 1.3 billion Chinese (of which almost 91,000 were in the stadium) not already satisfied with China's nearly 40 golds.

It was obvious as Liu - whose image is plastered throughout the nation endorsing seemngly everything from tea to appliances -gingerly warmed up and stalled as long as he could before settling into the starting blocks that he was one badly hurting puppy - something I commented on a couple times in a concerned tone. My remarks were met with silence until one staffer said rather curtly: "Nothing is wrong! He will win. He must!"

Face is all in China and I diplomatically gave my coworker some by shutting my barbarian yap until seconds after the starter's gun went off twice signaling a false start (not by Liu) and he tore off his competitor's tag and slowly limped off the track.

"F%%er!" yelled the fellow who'd assured me of Liu's victory. That was extreemely uncharacteristic - unlike their foul mouthed foreign expert, my office mates rarely swear and when they do it's in Chinese. Meanwhile the TV cameras were following Liu's disgraced trail behind the scenes in the Bird's Nest where he sat down, head in hands. The Chinese blogosphere exploded shortly thereafter, many defending him buit others calling a "coward" and worse. "I will slit the throat of him and his coach!" read one translation. "He has disgraced the Motherland."

You'd have thought he'd urinated on the Chinese flag and wiped it on President Hu Jintao's face.. When tempers had cooled and the tearful press conferences concluded, I asked the coworker who'd cursed Liu what the deal was. China has so much talent to be proud of - lithesome diver Guo Jingjing, some hunky badminton guy I'd never heard of, but who'd also been a media darling for 15 minutes the day before, and many others. Why put it all on Liu? In the end it's all only a game - not life and death.

"If Michael Phelps had not won eight gold medals, people in the United States might be disappointed, but they wouldn't threaten to kill him," I explained. "Liu did his best. He was hurting badly. Why further injure his leg only to lose anyway?"

"Some people lost a lot of money," he said. "Some paid 10,000 yuan (nearly $1,500) for a ticket to watch him. Now maybe a ticket is worth 100 yuan." It wasn't just about money, though. He continued.

"Many Chinese think the Olympics this time is a chance to show their abilities and new wealth to the whole world. That's why we put so much money and preparing to the opening and are trying to win many, many medals. So they put on even more pressure than usual.. Ater you have been poor for decades or more than a century, you have to prove everyone you are no longer weak.."

Liu was not weak, I said. He was injured, it happens to many athletes. My coworker nodded.

"China is getting better," he said and went on to tell me about a Chinese Olympic athlete who had "only" won 3rd place in a previous Olympics in the 1980s or early 90s. "When he returned, some people had thrown rubbish and garbage at his home. I do not think that will happen to Liu."

Indeed not. A day after his fall from national grace, a creative marketing whiz at Nike - with whom Liu is signed - engineered a quick turnaround. A full page newspaper ad in China Daily shows a somber, half-shadowed but powerful looking Liu with the slogan: "Love sport even when it breaks your heart."


Peter said...

Good post Justin.

No matter how high expectations, money on stake or worse, no such criticism of Liu is justified unless people have proof that he is faking an injury. And I don't think any Chinese dare put him in that category.

"Face" is really sometimes the biggest mountain to climb in China.

Justin said...

Sadly, Peter the "Liu was faking it" theory is also widespread here.

I heard it again this morning from a photog for Xinhua, the State-run Chinese news agency who claimed he's photographed Liu since the Athens Olympics.

I more or less told him he's nuts, but did so politely.

Matthew said...

The conversation you had with the coworker was really nice to read. I was just disappointed that we wouldn't get to see a great race for the finals...looks like the Cuban doesn't have much competition now.