Posted Jul 31, 2012By Mark KiszlaThe Denver Post
LONDON -- The gloves are off and any pretense of civility is gone from the Olympic rivalry between the United States and China. The race to win the medal count got ugly fast.
"Olympic sport is part of the culture war," Chinese sports executive Wei Jizhong said in an interview with The Denver Post. "In the culture war between China and the U.S., in the culture part, China is very weak. USA always is leading. In culture, you have theater, music; China cannot win. The only way China can compete with the USA is sports."
After four days of competition, the two Olympic superpowers have each won 23 medals. Make no mistake, we've got a fight on our hands. And there's nothing like jingoism to pour fuel on an Olympic rivalry. Although attending the Summer Games in his role as president of the international volleyball federation, Wei is unabashedly cheering for Chinese athletes to knock the United States down a step on the podium.
"For the Chinese people, the gold medal means something in politics," Wei said, leaning so close to my nose I could guess what he ate for breakfast.
Is winning the most Olympic medals a matter of political pride for the Chinese government, or the majority of regular people in a country of 1.3 billion?
"For most people," insisted Wei, snatching my hand out of the air and pushing it to my chest to show he would take no argument.
China has established the early lead with 13 gold medals, two won by 16-year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen, who is dismayed by a U.S. accusation her breakout success in the pool could be the product of performance-enhancing drugs. "How come they criticize me, just because I have multiple medals?" said Ye when the news conference following her victory in the 200-meter individual medley turned into an inquisition on her integrity.
Asked directly if she was guilty of doping, Ye calmly replied: "Absolutely not."
When Ye set a world record in the 400 meter IM on the first day of competition, taking five seconds off her personal best time and swimming the final leg faster than American Ryan Lochte did in the same race for the men, admiration for her feat quickly gave way to cynicism.
American John Leonard, who serves as the executive director of the World Swimming Coaching Association, openly questioned the legitimacy of Ye's victory. "We want to be very careful about calling it doping," said Leonard, igniting the controversy. "Every time we see something and I will put quotation marks around this, 'unbelievable,' history shows us that it turns out later there was doping involved."
Let's be honest. It sounded like sour grapes, especially at an Olympic swim meet that for every golden moment by Colorado's Missy Franklin there has been a disappointing performance in the pool from Michael Phelps.
To her credit, U.S. swimmer Caitlin Leverenz was gracious enough to take the high road after finishing third in the 200 IM. "I'm not the person to question anyone in their performance," Leverenz said. "I'd like to congratulate Ye, because she's had an awesome meet so far. Winning two gold medals is a tremendous accomplishment."
Why is it athletes don't seem to take the results as personally as officials waving the colors of their national flag on the sideline? Maybe the Olympics should start awarding for smack talk or unsportsmanlike insults.
When more than 200 nations march in the opening ceremony, the Summer Games celebrate global unity. When they start keeping score, however, the chest-thumping of national pride inevitably brings out the darker side of us-versus-them.
At the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, Team USA boasted of taking home the most medals. But if you believe second place in the first loser, then China's 51 golds were the only statistic that really mattered.
Sports cease to become friendly competition when gymastics or basketball becomes a test of a nation's self-worth. China is a nation so intent on proving itself on the world stage that if it requires stepping on toes to reach the finish line, so be it.
"The mentality is different in USA and China. China is a developing country, with much poverty. USA is a well-developed country. So for a developing country, the mentality of the people is to catch up. We have to catch up," Wei said.
"Sports is the only way China can win the culture war."
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