Instead, we hear stories of the Chinese team’s grueling discipline and lack of personal freedom. Stories that in the end reach the bizarre conclusion that the team’s profound dedication and professionalism is somehow negative. The Summer Olympic Special Edition of Time magazine says Chinese athletes “are allowed little life outside the discipline that was chosen for them,” and goes on to speculate “Anything more than training, eating, and sleeping seems to be against the rules.” Chinese athletes are painted as automatons rather than humans, obedient peasants who have been sucked into some kind of state juggernaut assembly line that churns out champions with no individual will. It’s the same anti-collectivist cold war rhetoric I used to hear in the 80s about the USSR, overlaid with thinly veiled anti-Asian racism. De-humanizing Chinese athletes in this way is profoundly racist, not to mention it’s poor sportsmanship.
This approach fuels anti-Asian racism. Demonizing China’s team makes it easy to avoid exploring an embarrassing reality: the difference between the Chinese athletes and the US athletes is not the determination of the individuals – it’s their government’s relationship to them. Liu Chunghong, two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s weight lifting explained her situation in Time magazine’s article: “food, housing, clothing, tuition – it’s all paid for.” Meanwhile, the US forces its athletes to survive at the whim of the market. They are not compensated at all by the Olympic committee. Without corporate sponsors their greatest hope is winning a medal, which comes with a maximum of a $25k reward, which covers only a percentage of what people pay for training, let alone living expenses. On top of that, the vast majority of Olympic competitors do not win medals at all – what happens to them? They get nothing.
To hide these inconvenient issues, we get told a different story. US athletes are painted as underdogs. Which is a strange concept on many levels. On the one hand, they are representing the US, which is hardly an underdog in the world. Given its militarism, it’s more like a rabid attack dog. On the other hand, as individuals they are often truly underdogs, but those same corporations that are pimping them out in heartwarming video vignettes are the ones that created those conditions!
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love those moving video montages about US athletes. I totally get into the heartfelt music; the shaky teenager that becomes a self-confident world-class athlete before your eyes; the story of hardship overcome, of racist and sexist standards of achievement shattered. Have you heard the story of Lolo Jones? A mixed race woman of color who grew up homeless with 5 siblings and no father, and worked at home depot while training in track and field, determined to become a professional hurdler? Even the obvious metaphor is beautiful: she’s been overcoming hurdles her whole life. It’s easy for people to root for her.
And yet, the bigger picture is hard to swallow. How is it conscionable, that this woman’s family was homeless for so long, in the country with the biggest economy in the world? That until she had a corporate sponsor she had no shot at all? And now that she’s on the cover of magazines, her triumphs and failures belong to Oakley as memes to sell sunglasses.
US corporations exploit US athletes, first by creating the conditions that make their lives so hard, and then a second time by claiming their stories of triumph as their own. It’s scandalous, and just another version of the dirty maneuvers they use to avoid taxes, flood money into elections to determine the outcomes in their favor, and avoid accountability. It’s a dirty shame.
Meanwhile, there are US athletes whose families are in foreclosure, facing unemployment, and battling racism in a supposedly race-blind society. They are taking a huge risk – they either win big and live on corporate sponsors and advertising deals – or they come home empty-handed, often having bet their future and their families’ savings on 5 minutes of racing, 3 minutes of acrobatics, a 7 minute bike sprint.
Like Gabby Douglas, the 16-year old African American gymnast on the US team, whose father did three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and was adopted by strangers so she could train with a quality coach; far from her supportive single mom. Coverage of the qualifiers was so racially biased, that when she out-performed her highly favored white teammate, instead of a celebration of her outstanding achievement, the camera and the story focused on the white gymnast’s disappointment.
And when Bronx gymnast John Orozco thanks his Puerto Rican parents, I can’t help but think about the legacy of imperialism in that nation, now a protectorate semi-colony of the US. Does he still have family on the island? How do they feel about him representing the US on the world stage, at the same time that they don’t have the right to vote in the upcoming presidential election?
Theirs are stories of tremendous bravery and sacrifice. It’s shameful how they are used and twisted, told in a way that celebrates individualism, reinforces racism, and upholds American Exceptionalism.
Instead of learning from the success of China, we are taught to believe that the fact that rural Chinese women are financially supported to train with the best coaches in their country is somehow suspicious. That investment from the state is the real moral problem. We are taught to believe that US athletes are driven by their own individual achievement, by corporate sponsors, and therefore better, and more pure in their pursuit of perfection. Why? Because the US is an exception, a country inherently superior to other countries, filled with individuals who are ready to compete and tear anyone apart in order to get ahead. I swear, sometimes I feel like free market individualist Ayn Rand is writing the announcers’ scripts.
If the US cared about it’s athletes, it could invest in their development, and in removing the barriers that systemic oppression puts between talent and achievement.
Instead of that, we have cringe-worthy post-Olympics appearances by brilliant athletes in ads for everything from Viagra to Shampoo. In addition to embarrassing – like Apollo Ohno selling Subway – it’s a symptom of how corporate control has shaped our society. How else can you explain Olympic Games sponsored by McDonald’s and Coca Cola, two US corporations that pump us full of government-subsidized refined corn sugar and then wash their hands of the obesity rate, and rampant heart disease in our communities?
Instead of racist anti-Asian reporting, we could use some real reporting on this aspect of the games. Millions of US corporate dollars are flooding around this competition. Where does all that money go? It’s certainly not being invested in US athletes in a way that would level the playing field. And it’s definitely not making it’s way back to West Oakland; trust me, I’ve looked.
Instead of recycling tired old cold-war propaganda against China, we could use a good hard look at the balance of power inside the US that puts athletes up against such awful odds. Now that’s a video vignette I’d like to see.