Friday, August 15, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing

I am neither a sports fanatic nor a jingoist, but this year's Olympics news coverage has just been godawful. I don't know what's worse: the snarky commentary or the innuendo hinting at China's "culture of cheating" and "fascistic" government. The level of condescension and arrogance seems to have risen to wartime heights, as if I was reading weeklies from 1942 preserved on microfilm.

The opening ceremonies proved to be a begrudging success until reports of lip-syncing and CGI-enhancement surfaced. (As if artificiality only happens in the realm of reality TV.) Of course, it didn't matter that the organizers openly copped to the fakery -- China's inherent deceitfulness will be entirely unveiled by the end of the games. I take issue with journalists -- and readers -- who feel that it is necessary to spin every news item as evidence of China's inferiority, a Cold War competition between an aging superpower and its century-old rival.

Martha Károlyi openly insulted the Chinese women's gymnastics team, calling the girls "half-people" and "little babies" (AP). Her husband, Béla Károlyi, spoke as an authoritative NBC commentator that he suspected foul play. Their supporters agreed: The Chinese simply looked too young, too immature, and were too "machine-like" to have deserved their gold medals. Yet, during the 1996 Atlanta Games, the Károlyis stayed uncharacteristically silent about Dominique Moceanu's under 16 status. (The gymnast would later accuse her coaches of mental and physical abuse.) Or Nadia Comaneci and her perfect 10s, drilled into the essence of her body at 14. In their defense, "Some are mature enough to handle it," said Béla at the time.

The issue has been made into a moralistic one when the use of lithe and nubile children is clearly pervasive in international competitive gymnastics (a movement the Károlyis spearheaded). When asked to comment by the NY Times, the Italian gymnastics coach Enrico Casella said, "... there will always be rumors that athletes are too young. Looks could be deceiving.

“'By looks, you could say that the United States is using doping. They are so muscular. My gymnasts in Italy aren’t that big. You begin to wonder how they got that way.'” (Link)

Now, I'm not saying passports can't be falsified, but hard work is self-evident. And for the untrained eye (which most of us possess), the decision to award the Chinese team with the gold could have easily gone either way. Both teams made mistakes, some just more glaringly so. But you try scoring with a Byzantine system averaged on a subjective scale.

Nevertheless, accusations of cheating has continued to follow China to the podium. Yang Yilin was scrutinized by Western reporters while her American gold and silver counterparts (Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, respectively) were allowed to revel in their immediate glory. For Pete's sake, they are all supernatural beings who gave up having a normal life to compete for their country. So excuse me if I sound defensive when headlines like, "Meeting Chinese gymnast? Like jail visiting hour" (Link) are published, unheeded.

Most of all, it reminds me just how far America has fallen from its political and cultural rostrum. While its pundits accuse others of autocracy and hypocrisy, the rest of the Western world is in awe that they're still torn about putting an educated black man in power. (And don't even get me started on Canada's Pollyanna pettiness.)

Anyway, as for China's human rights record? I guess I'm a nihilist in this regard. I was born there, bred here, and arrived somewhere in the middle, so I'm equally supportive and skeptical of the universalist origins of human rights discourse. But I am especially dubious of the rhetoric attached. (Man, I sound like a prick.)

So maybe that'll be my next post: my unsolicited opinion about the ideological juggernaut that is "human rights" and the cultural assumptions that must be erected for its existence. Subtitled: Chinese people just have different rules, dude.

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