Sunday, August 5, 2012

Some Olympic Musings

Asian Men Walking Tall.

Although often billed as a gathering of the world's athletes coming together to compete in the name of goodwill and international understanding, the Olympics are just as often a proxy for nations to vent their political frustrations on one another through winning on the field of sport. In some ways and to some minds, winning at competition reflects the superiority of a political, social, or even moral, system of a given country. With this in mind I fully expected these London Olympics to provide us with some tense competition and commentary that reflected the present-day economic and political reality of our times. I wasn't disappointed.

Unsurprisingly, the nail-biting anxiety (and the accompanying xenophobic hostility) felt in the West about China's economic rise and its increasing influence in the developing world has been reflected in reactions to China's Olympic successes. Various outraged (and unfounded) insinuations of doping made against victorious Chinese competitors were a simple reflection of Western society's resentful attitudes towards Asians - it is a given that any success or excellence has to be the result of some kind of cheating or underhandedness. Even worse is the fact that stereotypically weak Asians are proving to be just as physically capable as their non-Asian competitors. It is said that when the human mind is presented with evidence that contradicts what it has believed for its entire existence, it will respond rage against the new information and attempt to find any ad-hoc rationalization (regardless of how irrational or unreasonable it may be) to will enable it to maintain its false belief against all the evidence - then the mind will resent you for making it see a truth it didn't want to see.

This is what has been so clearly displayed at London 2012 - stereotypes about Asians have crumbled in plain sight of everyone and the resulting outrage and resentment in some quarters indicates the degree to which the Western mind that has created a xenophobic fantasy about Asian inferiority that it is unwilling to let go of.

The most charming thing about the Chinese athletes is that they seem oblivious to this negative racialization of their success as they speed past their competitors. They simply don't know that their ethnicity is supposed to be an obstacle to athletic excellence. One way that I have noticed this is in the swagger of the Chinese men's gymnastics team.....


These guys range in height from between 5'3 to 5'6, but they don't seem to have heard that being short and Asian means that they aren't masculine. Their confidence and self-assurance was so jarring because American culture insists that Asian men have no reason to possess these qualities of confidence and self-assurance. Of course, the reason that they may seem so confident is that they haven't been raised in a culture that mocks their masculinity and racializes their achievements and potential - the world has been presented to them in a way that it might not have been presented to Asian men raised in the US, a world in which their race need not influence their opportunities, ambitions, or what is expected of them. The Japanese men's gymnastics team has also performed extremely well, taking the silver in the team event - even though they could have done without the Boy Band feminine hairstyles....

The Japanese men and their silver medal on top of the medal podium.

Having said that, the guy on the right is 18-year-old Ryohei Kato whose looks have apparently caught the attention of thousands of Chinese female fans who have overcome decades of mutual Sino-Japanese distrust to register their lust for him. Women like pretty boys sometimes!

In other good news for Asian men - and for Asian soccer fans - Japan and South Korea have both reached the semi-finals of Olympic soccer tournament. Japan will play Mexico, and Korea will play Brazil in the next round. Although not considered anywhere as important as the World Cup - mainly because most of the players making the teams must be under 23 - the Olympic soccer tournament is still a good indication of a country's pool of talent. Japan have played some really nice football, whilst S. Korea apparently outperformed and outplayed their more highly-regarded British opponents. It is also interesting to note the reaction of a Swiss player to discovering that Asians aren't racially weaker after his side was beaten by the Koreans. People don't like having their strongly held beliefs challenged.

On a final note, it has been interesting to note the success of China's female athletes. For a culture that gave us footbinding - a practice that was ended decades ago, but for which China is still being irrationally castigated - and is held by many as a hell on earth for women, the Chinese seem to hold women's athletics in high esteem, and also seem to be heavily invested in promoting sporting excellence for their women athletes. In this regard, it might even be suggested that Chinese women have greater opportunities in sport participation and success than their Western counterparts. Who knows, maybe China isn't still culturally stuck in the 9th Century like many commentators would have us believe.

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