Chinese Athletes Under Pressure To Win Gold

Liu Xiang withdraws from the 110-meter hurdles race in Beijing. i i

China's Liu Xiang withdraws from the first round of the men's 110-meter hurdles at the Bird's Nest stadium during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on Aug. 18. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
Liu Xiang withdraws from the 110-meter hurdles race in Beijing.

China's Liu Xiang withdraws from the first round of the men's 110-meter hurdles at the Bird's Nest stadium during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on Aug. 18.

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Reporter's Notebook

China is reeling from the surprise withdrawal of its top hope in the 110-meter hurdles, Liu Xiang, but some say there's growing tolerance for failure in Olympic competition.

One of the earliest iconic images of the Olympics in Beijing was the sobbing Chinese shooter, Du Li. She was expected to win China's first gold as defending champion at 10-meter air rifle, but she cracked under pressure and finished fifth.

On television, she seemed heartbroken.

"I still hope I can cause the national flag to be raised," Du said. "I really tried my very hardest."

High Pressure, High Rewards

Local media reports speculated that she may have been distracted by the financial rewards of victory — China's gold medalists will get tax-free bonuses estimated at $200,000 from local and central governments.

Television sports commentator Huang Jianxiang says a gold medal ensures an athlete's income long after his sporting life is over.

"They can have a job or position in the sport bureau or any kind of government branch in charge of sport and games," Huang says. "So they are guaranteed a good life even after their retirement."

Liu, the hurdler, advertised for Visa in the run-up to the Olympics, and as the first-ever Chinese gold medalist in track and field, he earned $23 million this year, according to Forbes magazine.

But on Monday, his Olympics hopes were dashed because of a tendon injury. Sports marketers say it will affect his commercial value, as some sponsors will be unlikely to renew contracts.

Mixed Reaction

Online criticism has been vitriolic: "He had enough money and fame already so he found a way out," one person wrote. Others accused him of cheating China and of giving up because he knew he couldn't win.

On the streets, the view is mixed, but generally sympathetic.

"He should have kept going," says one man who gave his name as Mr. Zhang. "Our expectations were too high."

"What's there to be disappointed about?" says Pang Deli. "We're all human."

A Shift Toward Tolerance

For China's avid sports fans, losing was once seen as an affront to the nation. China's prince of gymnastics, Li Ning, who lit the Olympic flame in Beijing, found that out in 1988.

"After Li Ning fell off the vaulting horse in the Seoul Olympics in 1988, lots of people wrote him letters cursing him," says Adam Zhang, chief executive of sports marketer Key Solutions. "Someone even sent him a rope to hang himself. But now there's been a huge change — people are much more tolerant."

Chinese audiences have been getting used to hearing their national anthem over the past few days, and that massive gold medal haul has made them more tolerant of failure.

Huang, the sports commentator, says more exposure to the NBA and European soccer has also played its part.

"People have seen victories, relegations, tears and smiles," Huang says. "After this games Chinese people will not be as interested as before in Olympic medals. We are proud enough."

This new acceptance of human frailty has helped failed shooter Du. She had clearly been expecting condemnation, but instead she found widespread sympathy. Then four days later, much to fans' delight, she redeemed herself by winning gold at the 50-meter rifle, setting a new Olympic record.

Without a second chance this games, hurdler Liu will have to wait far longer to find his redemption.

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