How China’s Nationalism Turned the Olympics Into a Battlefield for Chinese Supremacy
Simone Gao: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Zooming In China. I’m Simone Gao.
The Olympics have a storied history, running first from the 8th to 4th century B.C. in Athens, Greece, before beginning again in 1896. 241 athletes from 14 different nations competed in 43 different events during that first revival of Olympic competition. In this year’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics we are witness to 205 nations with more than 11,000 athletes competing in 339 events. But it is not the numbers that tell the story.
The story of the Olympics is meant to be one of spirit and of heart. Of solidarity among athletes who have spent the better part of their lives focused on this one dream, this one moment, where they might rise to be recognized as the greatest in the world. While the athletes represent their countries, and there is pride in that, at its core, the Olympics is meant to unite the world under one common purpose: to bear witness to the pinnacle of human athletic achievement and to celebrate greatness, no matter its source.
Could that be a problem?
On the bright side, people would want to believe that no team may more fully represent what the Olympic spirit might look like in practice than the Refugee Olympic Team, the plus one to the 205-nation total. Since the introduction of this team at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, the Olympic Solidarity project has provided more than $2 million in scholarships allowing these talented but displaced athletes to “train for the Games while continuing their sporting career and building for the future.” In Tokyo, 29 athletes from 11 countries are competing on this truly international, truly unified team.
But in reality, the Olympics can not and has not lived up to this ideal. The International Olympic Committee says that “we oppose any form of discrimination against a country or individual on the basis of race, religion, politics, gender or other reasons. With the broad minds of global citizens, we will tolerate, respect, appreciate and learn from other cultures, learn from each other’s strengths, and make progress together.”
Those are values that cannot be fully realized in a single athletic competition, even one the size and length of the Olympics. Those are values that, to be upheld, must extend to the life each athlete is able to live in their home country, to the ways those countries treat their citizens and to the behavior of each country as a member of the global community.
We have borne witness to a world where there have been genocide Olympics repeatedly. In 1936, the Olympics were allowed to be held in the host city of Berlin, Germany, granting Hitler an opportunity to showcase himself as an honorable leader and his country as a prosperous one. In truth, Hitler had begun his concentration camp system three years earlier with the creation of Dachau on March 22, 1933. And in 2008, the world willingly overlooked China’s role in the Darfur genocide, overlooked China’s severe human rights violations within its borders against the Christians, Falun Gong, the Uighurs, the Tibetans, the Mongolians and any political dissidents. World leaders, including U.S. president George W. Bush, chose to participate in the Beijing Olympics and settled for small protests at the event. Can we uphold the so-called Olympic spirit if those Olympics are being hosted by a country engaged in unspeakable crimes against humanity?
The failures of the Olympic spirit run far deeper than large-scale human rights violations. They run into the individual lives of athletes chosen to represent their country and to the tensions those countries carry with one another.
China’s approach to the Olympic games is one of winning at all costs, even the cost of its athletes. Their Olympic program, built after the Soviet model and refined through Chinese efficiency, is duplicated year-after-year in their 2000 government-run sports schools spread across the country. Children, hand-picked by State scouts, usually in their pre-teen years are removed from their families and required to focus exclusively on training for six grueling days a week, year-round, with few visits home and no real education. They are denied a childhood in the name of winning gold for their country. And for the tens of thousands who fall short of Olympic selection, they will carry the weight of lifelong hardships in their home country. With little education, damaged bodies and no career training, they will be left without options and without support from their government.
For those who are selected for Olympic competition, they will carry the weight of expectation. In the case of China, that means an expectation of gold. Silver and bronze are seen as failures. Just before the beginning of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games, Gou Zhongwen, head of the Chinese Olympic Committee, said that “we must resolutely ensure we are first in gold medals.”
That attitude has now been taken up by the Chinese nationalists attacking their own athletes and rival countries on social media. “To these people, Olympic medal tables are real-time trackers of national prowess and, by extension, of national dignity. In that context someone who fails at a competition against foreigners has let down or even betrayed the nation,” said Dr Florien Schneider, director of the Netherlands’ Leiden Asia Center.
We see the cost in the tears and apologies of Chinese athletes who, in the eyes of their country, have failed in the expectation to put nation above self. China’s table tennis mixed doubles team Xu Xin and Liu Shiwen, heavily favored to win, came up just short in a 3-4 loss to Japan’s Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito.
Instead of celebrating the incredible accomplishment of being second in the world at the Olympic Games, the pair tearfully apologized and said that the Chinese team as a whole “cannot accept this result.”
They did not, neither did their fans. The social media pages of the two Japanese players were so bombarded with verbal harassment and threats from angry Chinese people that they had to turn off the commentary function of their accounts.
This kind of response is bred from a nationalistic approach to competitive sports. The Chinese government’s obsession with gold began with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and from the earliest essay of Chairman Mao Zedong who wrote of China’s need to overcome the “sick man of Asia” perception and develop its strength. In the eyes of the CCP, only gold showcases that international strength, that defeat of other nations. Only gold is good enough.
Especially in a match against host country Japan. These two geographic neighbors have a complicated history fractured by Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria, in northern China, in 1931 followed by the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945. Despite 76 years of distance from the end of the war, Chinese nationalists still saw the table tennis mixed doubles match not as an athletic event but, instead, “a standoff between China and Japan.”
But not all Chinese citizens support this kind of nationalistic view of sports performance. One Weibo user replied that the mixed doubles match “was brilliant. Both sides were very strong and were very humble and respectful toward others.” Even State-run Xinhua news agency posted that, “I hope that all of us in front of the screen will establish a rational view of gold medals, and of victory and defeat to enjoy the Olympic spirit.”
But to say it is not necessarily to live it. Dr. Jonathan Hassid, political science expert at Iowa State University, noted that “the CCP tries to exploit online nationalism for its own purposes, but events like this show that once Chinese citizens get riled up, the state has great difficulty in controlling those feelings.” Once a country stifles dissent of any kind and requires strict allegiance and obedience to anything believed by its leaders, it breeds a nationalism that bleeds into the ideal of the Olympics. The kind of nationalism that promotes country over citizen. The kind that promotes the grandeur of the Games over the travesty of human rights violations.
We made the mistake of overlooking early concentration camps in Germany in favor of the 1936 Olympics being held on schedule in Berlin. We mistakenly thought that small protests at the 2008 Beijing Olympics would impact the genocide without disrupting competition in the Games. We were wrong, and we failed not just Olympic values but humanity because of it. Countless lives were lost.
In response to the question of whether the U.S. should boycott next year’s Beijing Olympics, an unnamed former senior Treasury official told CNBC that, “It’s better to go there and dominate.” I disagree. It is better for the United States to stand in solidarity with the people, the human beings held in the Xinjiang internment camps and refuse to support a nation that would inflict that kind of extended torture on its people. It is better to uphold the values that underlie humanity than to disregard them in the hunt for athletic supremacy.
Genocide olympics can not be tolerated.
That’s it for today. Again, we will release a documentary movie on the Clean Network today, it is part 2 of the documentary series “The American Dream Takes on China Inc”, that tells the story of a group of Silicon Valley veterans beating the CCP in the economic battlefield. We will publish on the membership website today and premiere it on Youtube two days later, on Sunday. For future documentary movies that are not part of this series we will put the full length movies on the membership website only. So if you would like to watch this movie earlier and to support me, please sign up for our membership website zoomingin.tv.
Thanks for watching. I am Simone Gao and I’ll see you next time.
Oh, before I leave, enjoy the trailer of the documentary movie The American Dream Takes on China Inc part 2: The Clean Network.