Sporting heroes for a New Generation

— by Shiyu Qian —

In 16 days of competition at the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio, Brazil, Chinese athletes won 70 medals (26 gold, 18 silver and 26 bronze), and came third in the overall league table. In the Chinese Olympic team of over 400 Chinese athletes, 65% of them were born after 1990, some of these youngsters – the post opening-up period generation – becoming national stars.







The Olympic Games are clearly the best time for the Chinese young athletes to show their talent on the world’s stage. Even though the demand (and expectation) for a medal tally (especially golden ones) are still high, the identity of each athlete and their efforts in the games has been valued more than ever before. On Chinese social network Weibo, many users wrote to the young Chinese swimming star, Sun Yang (who came second even thought she was expected more than most to win a gold) supportive messages: “You are already our hero and China is proud of you.” The same thing happened to a number of other Chinese athletes who didn’t win any medals at all; they still received thousands of positive comments that focused on their long-term hard work and courage.

The BBC pointed out that ever since China joined the Olympics, “Olympic success is a point of pride for the Communist-run nation.” Indeed, there is an established response by a number of strong and well-awarded athletes who regularly state that they are “thankful to the country and its people for the mission and support.” In this way there has always been a connection between political confidence and national pride as the image portrayed to the outside world and also within the county for its people. As a result of our National Sports System, the identity of a particular athlete could be down-valued since the overarching representation of the country is seen to be – and presented as – a collective one. In the past there have always been comments in the Western media about how Chinese athletes en bloc love to follow their county and are always disciplined and well-mannered.

Ning Zetao

Ning Zetao

But prior to 2000, I believe that the Chinese sports environment wasn’t as fascinating as it is today. Although there were still several national sports stars in the past, their athletic value was recognized differently. Chinese news reports always spoke of a “mission” and “responsibility” when our athletes won. Their success was actually raised up to be a representation of the political performance of China on the worldwide stage, and so the long-term expectation on athletes and the immense pressure for them to win became a symbol of political rightness. The athletes also were less seen as individuals as they also had to obey all the decisions of collective. Even the honour of being a sports world champion in China was often used to educate kids out of their selfish ways. If a youngster said: “I want to be an athlete in the future”, the answer would always be “No, you have to be a world champion otherwise you’re nothing”. That was Chinese society’s answer. It was true that with the National Sports System, it was all for glory. This was built on the sweat of many generations of famous Chinese athletes and all of their hard work under the huge pressure of expectations.

However, what we saw in Rio was a new generation of young Chinese athletes mostly born after 1980 and 1990. With the help of the social media network, they were revealed to a vast audience, more than ever before. During the Rio Olympics, there were several impressive stories of athletes becoming internet stars as they showed off their charm of personality. The Chinese female swimmer Fu Yuanhui hit the internet headlines when she spoke of her “mystic powers” and what the Western press called her disarming and expressive character. Even speaking about her period and her straight-forward answer of “I am so satisfied” (even though she did not win) were recognized as huge changes in the perception of Chinese sports and sportspeople. What the audience celebrated was not whether the political mission of obtaining gold was achieved, but the enjoyment and happiness of being a single athlete standing on the world-class stage. Fu’s story made an impact. The old hierarchical tradition of sporting politics – the old front – was broken by the confidence of new generation.

fu 1Fu Yuanhui (middle) won the bronze for women’s 100m backstroke. Her non-traditional smiling face after qualifying for the final spread all over the internet. The BBC announced that “Fu is part of a generational change in attitude towards competing.”

It’s the right time to go back to see the people with the real Olympic spirit: the culmination of challenging oneself and the fulfillment of self-value. As Fu said in a recent chat show: “there are millions of people struggling get onto the world-class stage and only a few of them will finally make it. The attitude of the audience towards top athletes should change. Whether they win the game or not they should be appreciated after all their hard work. They need to be respected.” In China, there are still millions of children who were sent to sports school and simply received extremely strict, unforgiving training in order that they might possibly become athletes in the national team. All the top Chinese athletes are already survivors of the harsh selection process… but could still be portrayed as failures in the news broadcast if they don’t win that prized gold medal for their country. This distorts the nature of being an Olympic competitor – we forgot the no-one can always win and too many expectations and harsh treatment cannot be good for anyone taking part in what should be an enjoyable experience. They are “Games”, after all.

This time the Rio Olympics gave the Chinese media and its audience a new chance to re-think the way we portray ourselves on world stage and to consider the real value of these top athletes. Is it still important to be “politically right” and have to have the responsibility to the country on your shoulders throughout the Games? Of course they are there to win, but does it really matter if they don’t? Why shouldn’t they express themselves?

Fu Yuanhui and her generation have already give the answer on the Olympic stage: It is clearly about competing and it’s about self-achievement and fulfillment over the national mission. As one American sportswriter once said” “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game”. One Chinese netizen said: “We don’t need gold medals to boost our confidence now. The Chinese people have made progress. All the athletes are our heroes!”


The marriage proposal at the Olympics, where diver Qin Kai proposed to her girlfriend He Zi after she won the silver for women’s three-metre springboard. She said “yes”



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