Tomorrow, the pomp and pageantry of the closing ceremony will mark the end and bring the curtain down on arguably the most talked about Olympics in history. Regardless of where you stand with respect to China’s human rights and environmental policies, it is difficult not to feel a grudging respect for the sheer will of a government that mobilized this most populous nation on earth in its quest for Olympic gold — both literally and figuratively.
Catch ’em young: Training centres in China coach children in sports from the age of five. Photograph: Oded Balnty / AP
The Chinese Olympics have been marked by discordant notes from the beginning. Several European leaders felt that the West should take a stand against China’s various infringements. But then, the West has always been deeply suspicious of the Chinese way of doing things. China believes that individuals should subsume their dreams and goals for the greater good of the nation; the West firmly believes in the right of individuals to pursue their passions.
While I am no fan of China’s one-party government, I admire its 8,000-year-old culture. Paradoxical as it may seem, given its current pollution levels and explosive growth of infrastructure, the Chinese people revere nature; are moved by the haunting flute music of the Silk Road; admire scholars; invented calligraphy and celadon glazes; gave the world gunpowder and charts; and are bound by the gentle balancing philosophies of Confucius and Lao Tzu that value filial duty above all. In other words, this is not a nation of worker bees who can be robotically conscripted by an evil government into following its dictates. To drive the citizens of this geographically varied giant nation into lockstep perfection is not trivial.
One measure of China’s achievement is the medal count it has hauled in at the Olympics. And one way of cutting through the crap of what it has achieved is to ask a simple question: If you were a kid with athletic dreams, would you want to be born in China, or anywhere else in Asia — India, for instance?
Before you say, China, of course, hold on. A while ago, the Financial Times carried a wonderful article about how China recruits athletes in remote villages and trains them (to the exclusion of everything else) to become world-class athletes. The story talked about one Olympic kayaker, Yang Yali, who was recruited from the provinces even though she didn’t even know how to swim and had never seen a kayak before her recruitment. But Yang Yali had the broad shoulders and long arms of the superlative kayaker she would become, and the talent scout recognized that.
The same week that I read the story, I attended Pratham Books’ launch of a children’s book, From Kolhapur to Beijing, which chronicled the journey of Olympic swimmer Virdhawal Khade. Khade’s voyage was fraught with resource constraints and hurdles. Here was a boy who wanted to swim, who was an Olympic-level swimmer and yet, he had to fight at every step to get where he was. Wouldn’t it have been far easier for this kid if a talent scout like the ones China employs in droves just spotted and moulded him; changed his destiny in one fell swoop?
I am not sure. The fantasy of being spotted for a talent you didn’t even know you possessed is alluring and seductive. Even I fantasize about playing beach volleyball and having some omnipresent talent scout tapping me on the shoulder and stating that I could be the next big thing in — oh, I don’t know — discus throw or shot put. Who wouldn’t like to be told that they had the body of a world-class gymnast? Hell, half the reason the ladies in my building go to the gym is because underneath the mundane minutiae of our lives, we all harbour dreams of being the next Nadia Comaneci or Olga Korbut.
Yang never dreamed that she would be a kayaker. Most of the Chinese kids who are undergoing training at the sports academies were chosen not because they hungered to excel at a particular sport but because they fit a certain body type. Once spotted, their lives change dramatically. They live in dorms and train all day. They become super-athletes who garner medals and glory for their country. They live the athletic dream. And yet…
The pleasure of winning lies in the chase. The reward of a medal is increased manifold if one hungered for it and had to overcome odds to achieve it. China’s sports training programmes create superb athletes for sure, but remove the free will that defines us humans as a species. I have never been an athlete but I think that I would prefer the scrappy chaos of an India where I could fight to rise or fall in my sport rather than the programmed discipline of China, where I would have to subsume my voice, spirit and soul to the requirements of the state. What if Yang never wanted to be a kayaker? What if her desire was to be a sprinter? Those questions never arise in China, where raw talent is nurtured but also predetermined.
Be that as it may, China’s vigorous training is arguably in keeping with the Olympic spirit. The Olympics, after all, were invented by the Greeks to laud the achievements of the human body — not the mind, not the psychology of athletes, not the moral questions about abandoning them once they pass their prime, but only to celebrate what a superlative body can achieve. In the ancient Olympics, atheletes competed in the nude and were specialists in the javelin or all kinds of jumps. China, you could argue, is returning the Games to their ancient goal.
I still would prefer to be a kid with athletic dreams in India though. Not China.
Shoba Narayan is waiting for Indian Olympic talent scouts to discover her untapped potential as a javelin thrower. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org