Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Psychological Weight of a Nation

One could say it’s China versus Phelps. Although the nation of 1.3 billion is behind in the total count, it has earned 14 golds to the United States’ 10 (five of those attributed to the machine-like swimmer who is now the most decorated Olympic champion). But it’s the China determinism that is the other story, one that is semi-impressive and semi-unsettling.

The Chinese government is driven and believes it has created novel opportunities for its athletes to win the 2008 Games. The structures in place and the strategies the country’s officials established to screen potential athletes are intense. Future competitors and Olympic hopefuls are developed from a young age and the methods by which they are trained engender enormous expectations.

Focused? Yes. Fair? Not necessarily.

From a psychological perspective, the drive, regiment, and motivation are a plus. Both coaches and athletes need these elements in order to improve and become successful. So, far, the training culture is effective. Besides setting precedents (for instance, the gymnastics squads seizing gold), other sports have become highly competitive. China made efforts to analyze its limitations in various events and target athletes who can put them on the sporting map. Further, a great number of sport psychologists are on staff to provide balance and support individuals and teams, holistically.

Counseling professionals, though, also recognize the substantial strain and stress that has been placed, or forced, on many participants. Yao Ming was the perfect vision, the child of two great Chinese athletes, practically engineered to become the nation’s great hope. An ambassador of the game that is becoming the most popular sport in China, Yao has carried the weight with promise and dignity.

Others though, do not seem as fortunate or willing, especially those that claim the intensity is too tough, the training too harsh, and the expectations too high. When it comes to health being a factor and a possible life threat, the goal becomes compromised. Yet, many do not want to give up. There is pride involved. There is money at stake. There is a new identity in the horizon. The culture has infiltrated the minds of many and inflicted a workmanlike, militaristic, do or die attitude.

Overcoming adversity is one thing; winning at all costs another.

If Bela Karolyi’s accusations are valid -- that the Chinese women’s gymnastics team is violating rules with underage participants -- there is something much more disturbing occurring. Could China really be going that far? Does it not want to become victorious the honest way, through hard work and old-school coaching? Or is Bela simply bitter, not being able to be center stage on the floor and pressing his promise that it’s better to come from behind with no pressure?

Karloyi’s claim that it’s easier for the younger kids in gymnastics (suggesting the Chinese) to win because of their innocence and immunity to what the events truly signify is not entirely realistic. It’s true that fledgling flippers may have more fun and are naturally looser, but experience often comes out on top -- at least in other sporting events.

It appeared that the Chinese were the calm ones from the very first vault, while the Americans never relaxed or became comfortable as a unit. China was focused, hours and years of deliberate training and cultural influence having reassured the government’s dream. The USA, led by the courageous Alicia Sacromone, didn’t answer the call. The immense pressure to perform perfectly and guide her teammates to the gold was evident even before her team’s turn.

We’ll continue to observe the happenings of the Beijing Games and the grand design of the host territory. If China does indeed succeed it its plans through excessive workouts and secluded students, then, as the public states, the investment is worth it. If not, maybe China should adopt the agenda of the Panda caretakers who develop a bears’ self-esteem through coaching with caring and understanding.


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