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Archive for August, 2012

I had an interesting discussion over coffee with a professor yesterday and it occurred to me during our chat that one of the most understudied things in Chinese sports is the extent to which athletes served as workers, particularly under high socialism (the time period I study) but also today. The state-sponsored sports system did not exist prior to the 1950s, but it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s especially that athletes began to receive compensation and an iron rice bowl for their service to the nation. But what is also interesting to me is that some people worked as athletes at the provincial and even factory levels — some of whom were recruited to specific provinces, municipalities, the army, or factories for the sole purpose of athletic possibilities, but who sometimes also held some other kind of job on the side (in the case of the factories at least). I am not sure how or if I can ever obtain records for this; most of what I know about how the system of state sports schools or factory danwei comes from memoirs I’ve read, and most from after 1965 unfortunately. I know that the system extended, I know that people were “traded” sometimes even — based on political background or what certain team/factory managers needed. How do I break into this? Are there sports schools or factory danwei that would let me have a glimpse as to how they recruit or have recruited people and traded them in the 1950s and 1960s? It does not look promising, I can’t find any secondary literature that details what is likely a somewhat corrupt and definitely secretive process. I think I just need to find 2-3 former athletes and then have them hook me into their network… But I really know this would be utterly fascinating if I could even pull off just a few interviews I could write a chapter or article about it.

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Look! A post unrelated to the dissertation.

I have to comment on the recent trends that seem to be setting in at London 2012 in which various athletes have been accused of not upholding the “Olympic spirit” by playing the system. Let me preface this by adding that I have never been a fan of doping, but less from the perspective that it’s “cheating!” and more from the health issues it poses combined with the ways in which it’s been done and the ways in which certain sports and people seem to get singled out over others (who are also likely doping in some form or another). When people resort to covert methods — corruption, gambling, doping — I can see why people jump on them for “cheating” (that’s not to say I agree, each case differs), but when athletes and coaches play the system to their advantage, how on earth do they end up charged with cheating and being disqualified? And furthermore, why do some people get disqualified while others don’t?

I’ll discuss the two cases that prompted me to write this post.

In the first case, we have the badminton debacle involving the throwing of matches by the Chinese, South Korean, and Indonesian teams. All of whom have now been disqualified on the grounds of not upholding the “Olympic spirit.” (and leaving Germany (?) to win? Terrific, Germany wins by default twice in 48 hours – the women’s cycling teams from GB and China being the other big disqualifications, albeit by written rules and not at the discretion of Olympic officials). Is it really their fault that the Olympic rules changed this time around thus making it a better option for them to lose in order to pursue a medal?

I’m not quite sure the international community understands the importance of this sport to these nations, who likely could have taken the top three spots, and that’s not an exaggeration. Based on my own research, I know how important medaling in badminton is for these countries. First off, the Chinese and Indonesian badminton teams have had a close relationship since the 1950s. Badminton has been the pride and joy of Indonesian athletics for at least six decades now, probably longer. To be frank, it’s really the only sport they excel at in the Olympic games. In fact, overseas Chinese living in Indonesia in the 1950s “returned” to the PRC to train with or become coaches for the Chinese national teams. (I use “returned” loosely because it would be like saying Pennsylvania Deutsch “returned” to Germany after living in the U.S. for a century–most Indonesian Chinese had been in Indonesia for decades or centuries.) In my research on the GANEFO, badminton was pretty much the sport in which the Indonesians excelled vis-a-vis the Chinese (who took home 70+ gold medals compared to like… a dozen? by the Indonesians). Since then the Chinese and Indonesians have continued to do exceptionally well in international badminton competitions. (I am less familiar with the South Korean case only because they tended to not compete with the Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s due to international federation rules and the “two Chinas” and “two Koreas” issue that plagued those.)

What absolutely makes me irate is that disqualification based on accusations of “Olympic spirit” do not seem to be equal. (Although not entirely surprising to anyone who studies Olympic history — there’s been all kinds of discrimination based on race, nation, and gender as we all know.) Today when I woke up the BBC had an article about a member of the GB cycling team that won gold yesterday — who has come forward saying that he deliberately crashed his bike to force a restart and get that gold. Well, at first he apparently faked mechanical difficulties, since that’s the only way you’re allowed to restart. But since then he has let out that it was “really all part of the plan” [to win gold, of course!]. It’s still too early to tell if he’ll be stripped of a medal, but the contrast between the media’s reaction to the disqualification of the badminton teams (which led to forced apologies by the Chinese team, crap about upholding the “Olympic spirit”) to the gold-medal-holding cycling team from GB is just frustrating. There’s a clear bias that can be summed up as “GB just doing what they needed to do” in contrast to “those match-throwing Asians.”

Above all, the most ridiculous thing to anyone who studies the Olympics as closely as I do, is this utter nonsense about playing for “Olympic spirit.” You can’t tell me that Michael Phelps competes “for fun.” Don’t try to tell me that the 1936 Berlin Olympics, or numerous other events since then, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics, were just to uphold some vague notion of humanistic jargon called the “Olympic spirit.” If you’re going to disqualify someone who plays by the rules, then you’re going to have to come up with a better excuse. I hope that this Olympics leads to a re-evaluation of the mission behind the games and the rules for disqualification, but I am not optimistic. The Olympic games – which spouts generic terms like “fair play” and “sportsmanship” while ignoring the real tensions behind national and personal glory – has not stayed ahead of the curve in the past.

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