Thursday, August 07, 2008

pressure can make diamonds ... how about gold?

China is fixated on getting gold medals in the Olympics.

The culture has always emphasized perfection. If it's not gold, it's worthless. If you're not #1, then you must be crap. My cousin's teacher once called in his parents to discuss his inadequate performance on an exam. After a long lecture, my relatives asked with fear, "What exactly did he get on the test?" The teacher's answer: 96 out of 100.

I made this visual demonstration of how it pertains to the Olympics. This is how you or I would respond to a silver medal:

Now let's look at it from the eyes of China.

The pressure is negatively affecting some of the athletes:

To learn how their athletes would handle the pressure of competing at home in the Olympics, Chinese sports officials conducted an experiment earlier this year: They invited athletes' parents to watch a gymnastics meet.

Most of the gymnasts, who have lived at their training center since they were young children, had never competed in front of their loved ones. Some could not cope.

'During the competition, some athletes didn't feel very good and even fell down from the balance beam.'

This morning, my cab driver and I had a discussion about this. In particular, we talked about Liu Xiang, the Chinese hurdler who won gold in Athens 2004, and who is representing China in hurdles this time too.

Liu Xiang is on billboards everywhere in Beijing, and his name is often associated with phrases like "the hopes of a nation ride on his shoulders". Or "1.4 billion people are rooting for him to win gold".

In a poll of Chinese citizens, staging a successful Olympics ranked fourth; watching Liu Xiang win gold ranked first (link).

Maybe Liu Xiang will be able to match the sky-high expectations, the way that J.K. Rowling did for the seventh book of Harry Potter. But I can't imagine the terror of those 12.86 seconds, after these months of buildup.

My dad told me once that computer programmers are not suited for sports competitions or artistic performances. "Those require precision on the day of the performance," he said. "You can't go in with the mindset of 'A mistake is fine. I'll just recompile. I'll get it right on the third try.'"

The cab driver this morning was even-keeled about the pressure on the athletes. "If I were the media," he said, "I would remind people that Liu Xiang has serious competition. If he doesn't win gold, it's not unusual. And whether he wins gold, silver, bronze, or nothing, he's put China on the map for track and field, and we should support him."

I like the sentiment quite a lot, but I don't think it would work as well for marketing.

I can't imagine a big China Mobile ad that says, "The hopes of a nation lie with him ... whether he wins gold, silver, bronze, or nothing."


Noah said...

I guess that's elitism ?
Maybe we have forgotten the original meaning of the Olympics ?

Jeremy said...

I watched Prefontaine Classic on TV last month and Xiang was scheduled to compete even though he had a bum hamstring. He looked pretty tight and nervous and ended up false starting and being disqualified. I suspect he did it on purpose to save face without further injuring his hamstring. It seemed clear to me that his thoughts were, "Please time warp me past the Olympics. Please time warp me past the Olympics. Please..."

He should be proud that he's even the favorite. 10-15 years ago, you wouldn't think much of China's chances in any sprinting event in track and field.

ArC said...

Well, in fairness, as the Onion just pointed out, gold is around 50 times more valuable than silver, as priced by the free market.

Anyways, I agree with your cabbie in general, but on the other hand, I suspect any medal contender from any country already has a tremendous amount of internally generated pressure/competitiveness to have made it to the ultra-elite ranks of their sport.

Reza Behforooz said...

enjoy the fun! keep the pictures coming :)

writer said...

Second place is the first loser.

mike-o-matic said...

How sad, if generally true. It must lead to an awfully unfulfilling life. I am fairly decent at what I do, but even in niche areas where I have an edge or flair for the work, there are tons of people in the world better than me. I do not view myself as a failure. My sense of achievement comes from being able to help others, and the joy I feel in finding serviceable solutions to unusual problems. In China, I'm sure I'd be regarded as quite the slacker. But at least people like working with me. :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah... yet another reason to marry a white guy! =)

John K. Lin said...

Unfortunately, it looks like one Chinese athlete choked under the pressure, already (Du Li).

Pressure to succeed weighs heavily on Chinese Olympic athletes

"Psychologists say they also are trying to encourage coaches to praise athletes and listen more in a culture in which mothers often chide their children for falling short when they get "only" 99% right on a math test."

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with the Chinese way of thinking, pretty much in line with what my role-model Reese Bobby from Talladega Nights says:
"If you ain't first, you're last!"

Andy Bons said...

I wouldn't say that it's just the Chinese that put an inordinate amount of pressure on their stars to perform. After watching the amazing 100-meter relay tonight in which Michael Phelps won his second gold medal, the announcers could not help but remind the audience of his quest for a ridiculous 7 gold medals in these games. If he fails to win gold in every single event he competes, people will be disappointed due to the expectations that the media has put on him.

But you know what comes with those expectations? A ridiculous amount of money in sponsorships. Tiger Woods, being the highest paid athlete in the world (mostly from sponsorships), accepts, deals and benefits from that pressure and attention immensely.

Regarding the marketing ad, I sincerely doubt that Liu Xiang would react favorably to the media and all of China having the sentiment of just "Wow, you're an Olympian! Good job!" He wants to win Gold much more than his 1.4 billion countrymen and women because he's the one that has put in the decade or more of training. Learning how to deal with the pressure of a culmination of years of arduous preparation to perform on the highest stage in the sport is a prerequisite to be an Olympian, and if the coaches of these athletes are not preparing them mentally for the pressure, then that's a flaw in their training.

This is why the US track and field trials are such good mental preparation for our athletes. There are 3 spots for each event. You have to had made the qualifying A standard for the Olympics, and you have to run in the top three in the final or you go home. Doesn't matter if you're last year's world champion (Bernard Lagat in this case). What matters is that you handle the pressure dealt to you because that is what it will be like in the Olympics. This is why Alan Webb is not an Olympian this year. He has the American record in the mile and he couldn't get his head out of his ass during the finals and just compete. So he got schooled and he goes home.

The best in the world expect more from themselves than any billboard or even nation can dole out. I'd much rather have my country behind me hoping that I win gold rather than cut me some slack, because if I'm there, I'm sure as shit not cutting any for myself given what it took to get there.

Anonymous said...

Another example... The face of one child, not good enough... Ouch.

"The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression. ... Lin Miaoke is excellent in those aspects."

minggie said...

please, go easy on China. first of all, it's not just china who value the gold the most. If you don't compete to win, what are you there for?

To all fairness, I don't think Chinese are that naive to deem all silvers as failure. To some sports, like diving, it certainly the case. I am sure Chinese would be more than thrilled to get a silver in basketball than getting a gold somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

"The culture has always emphasized perfection."

Are Chinese people happy people? One can't be perfect all the time.

ArC said...

One can't be perfect all the time.

Nearly that exact sentence comes up in Michael Ruhlman's "The Soul of a Chef". The boss of the person who said that shot back "Yes you can," to the approval of Ruhlman. He explained that chefs really do have to strive for perfection at all times. It's a great read.