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."