Pressure for Gold Proves Too Much for Some Chinese Olympians

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Is there too much Olympic fever in China? The country leads the Olympic medal count in London, but in the wake of last week's badminton scandal about throwing individual matches, and the country's horrified response to hurdler Liu Xiang's fall today, there's an internal debate going on about whether China is overly obsessed with gold medals. 

John Sudworth of the BBC reports from Beijing on the debate over whether the national sporting culture needs to change. Wu Jingbiao, a weightlifter who earned a silver medal in his weight class, was in tears after only coming in second in the world. "I'm ashamed for disgracing the Motherland," he sobs. 

"China's state-run media appears to be fixated on gold — not for the invidivual success each medal represents, but as one more notch in the all-important total medals tally," Sudworth says. 

The badminton incident, he reports, "only added to the handwringing [in China] over the perceived need to win at all costs." Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli, the top-ranked women's pair, were expelled from the tournament after being accused of attempting to purposefully lose a match to gain an advantage in the later rounds. China still swept the badminton competition, winning five more gold medals. 

The Chinese gymnastics program has long been one of the most controversial facets of China's athletic program. "Such training schools which take children as young as four have one purpose — to produce Olympic medal winners," Sudworth says. Children as young as four years old are pressed into grueling training regimens in which they are made to hold poses to increase flexibility. 

Sudworth talks with a onetime member of the national gymnastics team. He is now 28-years-old, injured, and has been reduced to begging on the streets in Beijing. "From a very young age, we had patriotism drummed into us," the former athlete says. "Winning is seen as a kind of sacred mission."

Tong-Tong Zhu is student from Liu Xiang's hometown of Chengdu and a BBC contributor. He believes that the country is more accepting of Liu's injuries now than it was four years ago, when the hurdler did not compete due to foot injuries.

"In this case, I think Liu Xiang is a special athlete in the sense that he's not necessarily competing in this one competition, but he also bears the entire expectations of his countrymen," he says. "People have higher expectations for him to participate in this Olympics, and to get a medal, if not a gold medal."

"Overall, I think that people are rational this time, compared to four years ago," Tong-Tong says. "People are giving some understanding to him, and that's what I feel from the news, [and] from talking to other people."