China Rethinks Its Obsession With Gold Medals

China's shock—some called it "mourning"—over champion hurdler Liu Xiang's withdrawal due to injury Monday from the Olympics is bigger than a single athlete, albeit a very charismatic one. His dramatic pullout has roiled discussion on a number of delicate subjects, from government transparency (or lack thereof) to flaws in the Soviet-style sports system to sponsors' pressures on athletes—and most importantly to China's obsession with a home-team Olympic "Gold Rush." Officials and citizens alike had made little attempt to conceal their goal of winning the most gold medals at these Games, supplanting the American sports superpower as No. 1, at least in golds. Liu's anticipated gold had been seen as special; it symbolized the rare example of an Asian's ability to dominate a track and field event.

But instead of grabbing gold, Liu hobbled off the track. Now the current period of soul-searching "is a good opportunity to debate this 'Gold Rush'," says Dong Jun, an announcer from the Beijing Games organizing committee. He believes it's time to re-examine the centralized and elitist "going for gold" approach. At the other end of the spectrum is what Chinese call the "sports for all" attitude that would treat athletes less like robots and more like, well, people who play sports because it's fun.

At the center of the debate is China's centralized and Stalinist-influenced sports-training system, which places enormous emphasis on gold medals. After snagging the second highest number of golds at Athens in 2004, after the United States, Chinese athletes have been preparing their grab for the most Olympic gold on their home turf. Now, with just a few days left in the Games, China is on track to attain its goal with 46 gold medals, as of Thursday evening in Beijing, elbowing aside the United States, which has won only 29 golds. (In the total medal standings, Team USA is still No. 1, with 95; China trails with 83, and Russia is a distant third with 51.)

Over the past decade, China's sports apparatus already has morphed into a schizophrenic hybrid, mixing brutal Maoist-era training techniques with market forces. Despite athletes' increasingly lucrative contracts from corporate sponsors, however, China's jock stars are still treated as chattel belonging to the state. Each must give a big chunk of his or her income to their respective sports associations. China's sports machine remains tainted by association with harsh overtraining, allegedly underage female gymnasts and, until a few years ago, doping.

And then there's that single-minded pursuit of gold medals. China's sports czars have focused so intently on a 2008 Gold Rush that after the 2000 Games in Sydney they launched "Project 119," a campaign focused on training athletes in individual sports with unusually high medal counts (like canoeing and kayaking) in which the Chinese normally do poorly in competition. (That may have something to do with the fact that most Chinese don't normally do those sports at all.)

In some ways, the entry of sponsorship deals has exacerbated the Chinese obsession with gold. Winning the top prize automatically makes an athlete more marketable and even more famous—just as in the United States or elsewhere. (Liu's 2007 income, thanks largely to his endorsement contracts, was $23.8 million.) Nike, which has used Liu's image liberally in its promotional material, tried to make the most of Black Monday with newspaper ads declaring, under an unsmiling photo of Liu looking straight into the lens, LOVE THE GLORY. LOVE THE PAIN. LOVE SPORT EVEN WHEN IT BREAKS YOUR HEART.

Even before the Olympics kicked off, discussion about China's obsession with "going for gold" began to unfold in domestic media and on muggy street corners where citizens congregate to cool themselves and gossip on hot summer nights. On Aug. 6, the official Global Times newspaper published three articles—each of them taking a totally different tack, as if to test public response. One defended the "ordinary people's passion for gold medals" and contended that the top prizes "are not the sum total of the Olympics, but the contest for gold can bring ordinary people the greatest joy." Another argued just the opposite, with the headline, FOCUSING SOLELY ON GOLD MEDALS IS TANTAMOUNT TO BLASPHEMY. Yet a third was mildly triumphalist in tone and was titled TAKE FIRST IN GOLD AND WE CAN STAND UP STRAIGHT, an indirect reference to China's humiliating one-time status as the "sick man of Asia."

By midweek—even as Chinese athletes drew nearer to their golden goal—domestic media appeared to be counseling modesty. Wednesday's China Youth Daily ran an article (headline: NEVER MIND BEING NUMBER ONE) that stated, "Overseas media report that China might take America's place as Number One on the gold medal list. A hot debate is taking place among ordinary Chinese people. Some believe China will succeed. Some disagree, saying the U.S. will exceed [us]. People are very cautious, showing the traditional Chinese characteristic of self-abasement." The article argued that gold medals aren't everything—but that it was OK to expect athletes to win gold so long as they aren't unduly pressured. The Global Times added a further cautionary note by quoting Beijing University of Physical Education professor Ren Hai: "Although China's got a lot of medals, it cannot be counted as a sports power yet."

Another message from propaganda-meisters is that Chinese athletes aren't automatons. The Oriental Morning Post, based in Liu's hometown of Shanghai, compared Liu to the not-quite-invincible Greek hero Achilles and counseled Chinese fans to be more tolerant—and mindful that sports stars are human beings, too. Official rhetoric in the wake of Liu's disappointment has dripped with sympathy and compassion. Politburo heavyweight Xi Jinping, heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, was quoted as calling Liu's decision to pull out "understandable" and saying, "We hope that after [Liu] recovers he will continue to train hard and struggle harder for the national glory."

China's media czars have warned domestic editors to steer clear from criticizing Liu or delving into details of his withdrawal from the Games. Internet censors purged some early Web chatter that dubbed Liu a "coward," a "eunuch" and "a big waste of the taxpayers' money." In an apparent riposte to such critics, a commentary on the Web site of the party mouthpiece People's Daily stated, "Perhaps a nation of 1.3 billion should not place the burdens of its aspirations on a boy's shoulders."

At least some Chinese officials agree that glory doesn't depend solely on gold. Shortly before the Games kicked off in Beijing, I sat down for an interview with Chen Gang, the Communist Party secretary of Chaoyang District in Beijing. Chaoyang is home to not only the Bird's Nest and many other Olympic venues but also the prestigious Central Business District. When I asked about his country's coming gold medal count—what some pundits are now dubbing the "Great Haul of China"—Chen's answer was decidedly humble. "China may not win as many golds as expected, because of the psychological pressure [to win]. There's just too much pressure," he said. "Gold medals aren't the most important thing for us in Chaoyang. The most important thing is how much people enjoy the Games—and I mean all people, including our many foreign visitors." Chen's first prediction might have been off; China will likely exceed its expectations for a golden haul. But his last comment struck a chord. If China's gauge of success shifts more toward the enjoyment of the people--and away from the diktat of the state—that would be a welcome new gold standard indeed.