'Gold Medals Are Paramount'

A former Chinese table tennis star looks at what it's like to come second on a Chinese Olympic team.

2012.08.10
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china-GaoJun-305.jpg An undated photo of Gao Jun in action.
RFA

The furor surrounding two Chinese badminton players who were disqualified from the London Olympics last week has brought the nation's state-backed training system that values Olympic gold medals above all else into sharp focus. Former Chinese Olympic silver medalist and current U.S. table tennis champion Gao Jun gave her reaction to RFA's Mandarin service after badminton player Yu Yang and a teammate were disqualified for throwing qualifying-round matches. Gao gave her own account of what it's like to come second on a Chinese Olympic team:

You have to look at this affair from a number of different angles. It's not only in badminton that you see this sort of thing happen. Of course, if you are a spectator who has paid money to get into the stadium, you will want to see a high standard of competition, not watch someone lose deliberately. But from the point of view of a country, or a national team, it is all about the national interest, and how best to make sure you get that gold medal.

I have been an athlete too, and if this had happened to me, I would feel that athletes were fairly innocent parties, especially in Asian countries, whether they come from China or South Korea. Athletes from these countries have all been educated into passivity, which is to say that they do as they are told, and will follow the arrangements made by their coach; they must follow directions. Under such circumstances, while athletes may have their own opinions about things, it is always the coach that tells them what they must do, and they do it, even if they think it's a bit [inappropriate].

This sort of thing never happened to me, but realistically speaking I think athletes are bound to consider what the consequences will be before going against their coach. Sometimes the consequences will seem to be far worse before the event. Also, sometimes [this happens] and there are no consequences. The athletes wouldn't necessarily be punished, but the coach might make them feel bad afterwards, and that is a consequence. [The two badminton players] probably feel quite betrayed, thinking, "Well, I only did what I was told to do; how come things turned out this way?"

Under such circumstances, in such an atmosphere, where China is all about "the winner takes it all and the loser has to fall," and focused on gold medals, a lot of athletes have already put a lot of effort in, even if they have never got as far as an Olympics or if they lose in competition. But everyone gets to read wonderful stories about the athletes who win gold medals, while we never find out how the athletes who don't manage to get gold are treated after they return home. These athletes have also put a huge amount of work in on behalf of their country, and tried their best for their country; they just didn't end up as champions.

Table tennis and badminton are China's strong points, and the people feel that way too. If China comes second in table tennis, then that's a failure! If the U.S. table tennis team were to get a silver medal, however, I think there would be so much celebration that we wouldn't get any sleep for several days and nights. You also have to look at who the teams are playing against. In China, the expectation on the part of the athletes themselves, the government and the people is that you will get a gold medal, because you are the best table tennis team [in the world]. If you lose, you will have let your country down and let yourself down, because everyone thinks that gold medals are paramount.

Reported by Xiao Rong for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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