Olympics: It’s about losing too

Get over it! The message to a distraught Chinese public, still reeling from Monday’s withdrawal of the nation’s biggest sporting hero, Liu Xiang, could not have been expressed more widely or more clearly.

From government leaders and corporate sponsors to media commentators and countless netizens, consolation was the order of the day as the host nation tried to recover from its biggest shock of the Games. It was not hard to do — simply divert attention to the medal table, which China hopes to top for the first time in Olympic history.

With three days and dozens of events still to come in these Games — as the Mail & Guardian went to press — but with the hosts 18 golds clear of their nearest rival, the United States, the home media were already calling the result.

True to its reputation as China’s boldest media group, the Southern Daily was the first to declare: ”Number one for golds almost certain.” Then China Daily came close to making it official with a column announcing: ”China looks unassailable in the gold tally.”

It is hard to argue. The hosts already have more golds than the US won in coming top at Athens. For a nation in mourning at the withdrawal of its greatest individual hero, it must be comforting that its 639-member team will triumph overall.

China, of course, is not the only nation to validate itself this way, which might explain why there are so many rival self-aggrandising rankings. Like most nations, Beijing orders the tables according to the number of golds, which puts China top. In the US, however, the rank is determined by overall medals, which leaves it as number one instead.

In Australia, the national board of statistics reckons a better guide is medals per head of population, which makes Jamaica the world’s top nation, followed by Slovakia and then, erm, Australia. Not to miss out, the European Union groups competitors in economic blocks, which means — guess what? — the EU has won more than China and the US combined.

There shouldn’t really be any medal tables. The Olympic Charter advises against drawing up rankings by country. Hosts are supposed to display only an individual roll of honour but such high-minded guidelines have been shunted so far aside that statistical manipulation of tables is almost a new Olympic event.

For the Chinese government, coming top is important.

Not only does it help to justify the R290-billion spent on preparing Beijing, but it is a partial antidote to the ”victim complex” that China has adopted in its relations to the outside world for the past 150 years.

Leading the world in golds restores pride and demonstrates how much the country has changed. Most events are totally alien to traditional Chinese culture, which puts far more emphasis on well-being than competition. But just as the government has embraced market economics with the passion of a new believer, so it is now obsessed by sporting success.

As a result, these Games rank among the most satisfying ever staged for those who like superlatives. Taking their line from the official slogan — ”Faster, higher, stronger” — with the longest-ever torch relay, the opening ceremony and the world records, they have exceeded all that preceded them.

There have been controversies over the silencing of critics and restrictions on the media.

But what was missing, until Liu pulled out of the 110m hurdles, was an appreciation for the losers. There never was going to be an Eric-the-Eel character because Olympic qualifying standards have been lifted. Until this week the Chinese media found little space for also-rans. Failures have been either forgotten or castigated online, most notably the men’s football team, whose scoring skills have been compared with those of a eunuch in a brothel.

If any good can come out of Liu’s withdrawal, it may be to strengthen the endangered belief that sport is not just about winning. He needs to come clean on why the injury was covered up for so long and then get back on track.

It is probably too much to expect that Liu will be the Chinese Paula Radcliffe as he attempts to regain his title in London in 2012. But this is not the last time China will top the medal table. If it can also grow confident enough to accept criticism and appreciate heroic losers, then there will also be a clear answer to those who feel uneasy that China is number one: Get over it. –

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Jonathan Watts
Jonathan Watts works from Bristol, England. Copywriter, Classics MA and author. Bristol, books, gigs, dogs. Jonathan Watts has over 100 followers on Twitter.

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