The Political Olympics: There Can Be Little Doubt In Anyone’s Mind That This Olympics Is About Politics

As the Olympics wind down in London, there can be little doubt in anyone’s mind that this Olympics is about politics.  How else can one explain the string of smears against Chinese athletes and their performances – coming from unexpected sources such as the prestigious journal of Nature – all in the name of “science and objectivity” – as well as expected sources such as the NY Times – where personal tragic setbacks such as Liu Xiang’s can be made into a kind of political statement?

Nature’s article on Ye Shiwen was especially troublesome.  The editors of Nature wrote:

At the Olympics, how fast is too fast? That question has dogged Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen after the 16-year-old shattered the world record in the women’s 400-metre individual medley (400 IM) on Saturday. In the wake of that race, some swimming experts wondered whether Ye’s win was aided by performance-enhancing drugs. She has never tested positive for a banned substance and the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday declared that her post-race test was clean. The resulting debate has been tinged with racial and political undertones, but little science. Nature examines whether and how an athlete’s performance history and the limits of human physiology could be used to catch dopers.

Nature then went through the “science” of how unusual, super-human Ye’s performance and how a clean drug test during competition does not necessarily rule out the possibility of doping.

Well, here is the problem: of course Ye’s performance was unusual and super-human.  You don’t get to the Olympics without being merely normal and average. And you certainly don’t get to win the gold by beingordinary.

As  Prof. Lai Jiang of the Department of Chemistry of University of Pennsylvania wrote to explain to nature (scroll down Nature article to see Jiang’s letter) and as our own jxie also has noted, while Ye’s performance is clearly world class, it however by no means raise the specter of drug use by itself – unless one takes the position that all record setters should be accused of drug doping until proven innocent.

If one ignores Nature’s editors fancy cherry picking of facts, Ye’s performance actually falls in line with the performance (and performance improvement) of other acknowledged great athletes.

In light of this, the great length by which Nature next attempts to explain how a clean bill of drug testing does not rule out 100% drug use became even more despicable.  This is worse than guilty until proven innocent as Ye already has passed the test and is already presumptively innocent.  For Ye, it’s guilty until proven innocent beyond every possible single doubt.

In fact, all the questions Nature makes about drugs apply to the Olympics system as a whole – which means if you must attribute guilt to persons, they apply to all Olympians who participated in the Olympics game in London.

No drug testing regimen is full-proof. Even though the Olympics committee takes drug usage seriously and has instituted a rigorous program that gives the games a fairly clean reputation, a clean result is not a guarantee of non drug use.  That is a “scientific and objective” fact about the Olympics testing process.

But it is not a “scientific and objective” fact that it must be applied singularly, narrowly and in a discriminatory fashion to a Chinese athlete.

Why does Nature not also make the “scientific and objective” assertion that every one of Ye’s competitor in that pool – every other Olympic competitor in the 2012 Olympics (heck in all Olympics, dating back to ancient Greece), including all medalist from the U.K. and U.S. – is guilty to the same extent as Ye by not having failed in any drug test set for the games?

[note: the editors of Nature have made an apology of sort (scroll to bottom of Nature article linked above), and to the extent they did, I suppose it’s Kudos of a sort to them.  For more about this, see DeWang’srecent post]

Now I move briefly to the NYT article linked above.  In the article, Jacobs goes to great length about the personal sacrifices Chinese athletes often suffer to get to the Olympics, including leaving home to train in national facilities, how Chinese athletes are merely the product of a inhuman government, and sad lives of athletes who are no longer in the spot light.

He wrote:

In recent days, a tide of self-doubt and introspection about the human costs of China’s Olympic prowess has arisen amid worries that the nation’s draconian sports system is sometimes producing damaged goods. Floundering athletes can even be cast aside after their careers are over — a point driven home last year when a former gold medal gymnast was found begging on the streets of Beijing. According to the state media, 240,000 retired athletes are grappling with injuries, poverty and unemployment.

Sometimes the victors inadvertently reveal the sacrifices they were forced to endure during their years of training. Last week, shortly after winning her third Olympic gold medal, the Chinese diver Wu Minxia was told that her grandparents had died years earlier and that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. Ms. Wu’s father explained that the family preferred to lie to his daughter all those years rather than risk harming her Olympic prospects.

“We accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong to us,” the father, Wu Yuming, told a Shanghai newspaper. “I don’t even dare think about things like enjoying family happiness.”

The obsession with Olympic glory is inextricably tied to the country’s recent history.

In 1984, it won its first cache of gold medals during the Summer Games in Los Angeles. Still, in the years that followed, Chinese athletes struggled to make their mark beyond sports like pistol shooting, table tennis and badminton.

The Communist Party set out to change that in 2002, when it began Project 119, a program that uses prodigious state resources and relentless training to groom potential gold medalists in sports like swimming, gymnastics and track and field.

Perhaps Jacobs should look home to see how Olympians in his own countries have also sacrificed tremendously to pursue their dreams.  It’s an open secret that Olympic gold medalist and sensation Gabrielle Douglas – at age 14, 2 years ago – also made the difficult decision to leave home to train at a better facility and with renowned coach Liang Chow in West Des Moines, Iowa.  As I wrote in a commentearlier this week,

So I have been sitting here in the San Francisco Bay area watching the Olympics. Gabrielle Douglas is a sensation in the States – as she should. One thing I have been hearing is how she – at age 14, 2 years ago – made the difficult decision to leave home to train at a better facility and with renowned coach Liang Chow in West Des Moines, Iowa.

This made sense to me. Everything you see at the Olympics, however easy it looks, represents super human efforts, talents – and sacrafices. Make no mistake about that.

All this made me think again of the propaganda we’ve been hearing about Chinese athletes – how they are the product of an inhumane system that take children away from their home!

The fact is that in China, where the country is overall poor, where world-class facilities and teachers are sparse, it is necessary often to have to move away from home to pursue one’s dream. State sponsorship is the only way of empowering some (not all) of the most talented atheletes in China.

But instead of hearing about these sacrifices, the personal overcoming of obstacles against tremendous odds, we hear mostly the inhumaness of the Chinese system….

As Dave Zirin of the Nation wrote cogently:

The spectacle of the 2012 London Olympics should be subtitled: “the bashing of the Chinese Athlete.” Yesterday, Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times published a much discussed piece called“Heavy Burden on Athletes Takes Joy Away From China’s Olympic Success.” In it, all kinds of “concerns” are raised about the toll “the nation’s draconian sports system” is taking on the country’s athletes. It tells tales of poverty, loneliness, and despair amongst China’s sports stars once the cheering has stopped. Their athletes are described as being exploited by an unfeeling government monolith that acted as a surrogate family until they were no longer of any use.

But it seems rather painfully obvious why we are seeing this tidal wave of suspicion, drug allegations, and concern for the “children.”  China is the chief economic rival in the world to the United States. Just like during the Cold War, the Olympics have become a proxy war where “medal counts” connote more than bragging rights but are a comment on the health of a nation.  China is rivaling the United States in medal counts so their dominance has to be explained in as critical, ugly, and even as racist a way as possible. The message is that they have medals because they just don’t love their kids.

If the New York Times is that concerned about the brutalization of young athletes, that battle begins at home. US athletes don’t have to navigate a state-run athletic system but something perhaps far more pernicious. Unlike China, US athletes get no government subsidies whatsoever. Their number one obstacle to the medal stand isn’t ability but poverty. As one study by the USA Track and Field Foundation demonstrated, “Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.).”

Both systems create “collateral damage.” Both systems are in need of reform. The only difference is the narrative. When we hear that swimmer Ryan Lochte’s parents are facing foreclosure on their home, or track star Lolo Jones’s family was homeless, or that gymnast Gabby Douglas was sent from her mother in Virginia Beach to live with strangers at the age of 14, those are tales of heroism and sacrifice. We celebrate their pain instead of condemning it or even being disturbed by it.

The US system also contains its share of countless broken bodies and broken lives, discarded in pursuit of gold. The ongoing sexual abuse scandal in USA Swimming is an example of this. As ESPN’s T.J. Quinn and Greg Amante wrote in 2010, “Youth swimming coaches, many certified by USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, have been able to molest young swimmers and then move from town to town, escaping criminal charges and continuing to victimize other under-aged swimmer….. ESPN found the abusive coaches, some of whom molested young swimmers for more than 30 years, avoided detection because of a number of factors: USA Swimming and other organizations had inadequate oversight, many local coaches, parents and swimming officials failed to report inappropriate contact they witnessed, and some parents, driven to see their children succeed, ignored or did not recognize what should have been red flags.”

Then there is USA Gymnastics, Joan Ryan, in her brilliant 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,wrote about the system,  “What I found was a story about legal, even celebrated child abuse. In the dark troughs along the road to the Olympics lay the bodies of girls who stumbled on the way, broken by the work, pressure and humiliation. I found a girl whose father left the family when she quit gymnastics at the age of 13, who scraped her arms and legs with razors to dull her emotional pain and who needed a two-hour pass from a psychiatric hospital to attend her high-school graduation. Girls who broke their necks and backs. One who so desperately sought the perfect, weightless gymnastic body that she starved herself to death.”

Imagine for a moment if Bob Costas or the New York Times had stories like this to tell about China. If they did, we’d know them by heart. Instead the pain of US athletes remain in the shadows. The message to all US critics of China’s Olympic system should be, “Physician, heal thyself.” The battle to make Olympic training more humane begins at home.

At the expense of focusing overly on the negatives, I make no apologies that life is hard, and that being an world-class athletes is particularly hard.  It’s not that different with pursuing to be a world-class artist, or a musician, a dancer, an actor or actress – where reaching the top is important.  To succeed is glorious.

But as the Chinese philosophy has it, with yin also goes yang.  There are many sacrifices; there are failures and tragedies to each glory.  Don’t make this just a Chinese thing.  It’s an Olympics thing.  It’s a life thing.

So writers like Jacobs makes the same mistake that editors of Nature makes. They see a potential general problem but apply it specifically and narrowly to make it a characteristic of the Chinese.

In some ways, maybe we will all someday see the Olympics as inhumane?  I don’t know.  But as long as we have the Olympics, we might as well appreciate the positives of it: the super-human efforts and paths that each Olympian takes to get to the Olympics, and the great accomplishment each medal represents.

Through competition, we come to see the common humanity that links us all – that no matter what nation you are from or what race or gender you represent, all share the same sacrifices and dedications that comes with earning a spot to compete in the Olympics…



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