A popular expression in China is pronounced chi ku, which means to “eat bitters” or “eating bitterness,” and is used to describe a person willing to suffer and endure great pain in order to succeed. The visceral idiom is fundamental in the work ethic that Chinese demonstrate professionally, academically, and athletically. Most Chinese are incredibly hard-working individuals, realizing that intense, concentrated efforts must be made to achieve one’s desired result. This is an important cultural trait to understand amid the current brouhaha surrounding Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen at the 2012 London Olympics.
Her meteoric rise mirrors that of her country in many ways: extraordinarily fast and without peer. Ye Shiwen has dominated the women’s swimming field entirely, starting with her gold medal swim in the 400m individual medley on Saturday. Immediately following her victory, analysts raised suspicion of the possibility of cheating. But where does this disbelief stem from?
The nature of the win itself set off some questions from viewers and commentators alike. Her victory in the 400m IM was by such a large margin that people compared her final 100m freestyle time to Ryan Lochte’s, instead of the women who swam behind her. Her 100m freestyle time was only .03 seconds behind Lochte’s and she managed to finish 2.84 seconds in front of American swimmer Elizabeth Beissel, an eternity in swimming. As Ross Tucker posits in his article published in The Guardian, suspicion raised on these grounds is understandable but does not merit condemnation.
But one has to ask, would there be as much questioning if the swimmer were from England, Spain, Korea, or Japan, namely any country other than China? Many would argue no.
Through the din, the clash of two increasingly competitive world powers butting heads can be heard. However outdated, many view the competition between China and America in the Olympics as a stage for a modern battle of political ideologies. This Cold War mentality has reared its head on the campaign trail in different facets and with a new focus on Asia in strategy for U.S. foreign policy. Because of this context, and as the world’s two biggest heavyweights, there is a different tone surrounding U.S.-Sino competitions. This results in sometimes hasty judgments towards the opposing side.
It has now turned into disapproval coming from the West, as the media scrutinizes the training regimes of Chinese athletes for imposing possible draconian practices in state-sponsored athletic facilities. A particularly depressing article published in the oft-shrill Daily Mail outlines some of the experiences of young Chinese athletes. In addition, the article tries to draw vast parallels between the training that an East German swimmer from the 1980 Games received to the possibilities of Ye Shiwen’s preparation. But should these claims be labeled as extreme beliefs or an overarching view of the entire Chinese Olympic training system?
One of the coaches working with the Chinese swim team, a British citizen, would argue the former. In an article published on Tuesday, the unnamed British coach explains his first-hand experience personally training a group of Chinese Olympic swimmers while living in China for the past seven years. He details his awe at the work ethic and dedication of his pupils, essentially echoing the idea that “eating bitters” is part of the Chinese mentality. He lists that he chose the majority of his own team without any “talent ID programme.” In his words, China’s athletes train harder than any country’s team and have the discipline to push themselves to greater limits than their peers.
It is too easy for many to accept the idea that domineering state-mandated athletic schools in China are responsible for China’s successes, as it correlates with the image many in the West have of the growing power. But having lived in China, it is even easier for me to see how hard Chinese push themselves on a constant basis. The university students that I had the privilege of teaching demonstrated their intensity when it came to work, more often requesting more assignments than complaining about too much. Their ability to strain themselves mentally and physically to a remarkable degree is a unique trait that their counterparts do not always share. I can only surmise how this mentality would increase for an Olympic athlete.
The Olympics are never just about sport. One of the most compelling aspects of the games is how domestic and foreign politics invariably become intertwined in the competitions. Thus, it’s natural that politics influence discussions at the Olympics. As the U.S. and China are the two most powerful countries in the world, and often don't agree with one another, it isn’t surprising that there exists a certain level of competition and distrust that surpasses others. However, it is important to weigh cultural differences and practices before assuming too much, especially with the world looking on.