Asian athletes kick butt

Sports are coming on strong in a region that has traditionally favored scholarship. Example: Thailand's prodigious women weightlifters.

Published August 13, 2008 9:00PM (EDT)

I'm not sure what Mahatma Gandhi would think. India's first individual gold medal was won in Beijing by a -- yes -- shooter!

This hardly means that the country born of nonviolent resistance (and coming up fast on China in population and development) is about to become another aggressive factory for superstars. The reasons why India has won so few medals over the years, beginning with a distant Paris Olympics where they were represented by one Anglo-Indian tourist, remain in place: A single-minded emphasis on cricket combined with a lack of proper facilities, coaching, competition and coordination of government agencies. Worldview may have something to do with it, too. Last year, I met with a group pushing to make yoga an Olympic sport -- as already there are world meets for young contortionists to score points with amazing postures. Surely, there are more people throughout the world keeping in spiritual shape with "downward dogs" than there are rhythmic gymnasts. And Delhi is already preparing a bid for the 2020 Olympics-- perhaps with the updated slogan, "One Dream, One OM"?

While most of the press on both sides may be concentrating on the China-U.S. collision, these Olympics belong to the one of five rings that stands for Asia. Since the continent last hosted the Games in 1988, there has been a sea change in terms of overturning Confucianist values that have held back all sporting endeavors. Forget the racist concept of Asians being disadvantaged by their slighter physical frames; it has really been the emphasis on scholarship and steady salaries over other pursuits that has kept many Asian countries from giving their athletes proper due or support. When Taiwan's C.K. Yang began a career that would lead him to become the world's greatest decathlete and the first Chinese (though aboriginal in descent) to ever win an Olympic medal, he practiced high-jumping over bamboo sticks found in the forest and used electric capacitator boxes to learn the pole vault. Today, however, Taiwanese youth compete for a $100,000 prize if they win a medal. The concept of "athlete as celebrity," and the commercial machinery behind it, has become another, somewhat belated, consequence of a general Americanization.

At his death last year, Yang had not even been invited to the Beijing Games -- an oversight the Chinese will surely be trying to overcome these days by making sure their Taiwanese brethren feel embraced and encouraged to head toward eventual political and sporting unification. For the other societies of "greater China," 2008 is also an opportunity for greater recognition, mainly due to a surplus of People's Republic coaches and ex-athletes who have generously spread their tutelage around. Hong Kong's hopes for medals beyond those won by a single sailing prodigy rest mainly on Ping-Pongers born on the mainland. Likewise, far-off Singapore, whose Chinese administrators have always maintained close relations with Beijing, may earn a few kudos through "loaner" athletes allowed to migrate from China as teenagers. The increasingly wealthy enclave, whose only freak medal came from a humble "uncle" Tan Howe Liang, still working in maintenance at a weightlifting gym, has recently invested in an impressive Sports School (though the prospective Olympians I met here all complained that they still lost too much training to academic exam pressures and mandatory army service).

The South Koreans might be competing in Beijing with a special drive born of envy, considering they invested 40 percent of their gross national product on a 1988 Olympic "coming out" that drew far less attention and far fewer fans. For the Japanese, the Beijing Games represent a passing of the torch of Asian leadership to the former "sick man" of Asia they regularly conquered. Given Japan's aging populace and retiring leadership, this seems almost a relief. Too bad Asia's greatest superstars, baseball players Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Matsui, aren't in Beijing. U.S. Major League Baseball's pig-headed refusal to allow their players to take off during the summer season has meant losing another big chance to increase their international reach (and will cause our "national pastime" to be dropped from the Olympic roster altogether in 2012).

But my personal favorites among Asian athletes are Thailand's prodigious women weightlifters. Like her illustrious predecessors, this year's gold medalist Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon (who shortened her name to fit on scoreboards and improve her fortunes), not only overcame injury and the odds of coming from a small nation, but, with each lift, seemed to raise expectations and shatter stereotypes for her countrywomen trapped in the vast sex trade.

In athletics, as in economics, Asia seems to have worked out an accommodation so that the rise of China benefits more than it threatens. One Pacific Rim neighbor's victories accrue to the glory of all. Besides, for a continent whose No. 1 sporting love is English football, it's nice to have something to tune in to during normal hours and the daily rice meal, to savor an Olympics in one's own time zone.

By John Krich

John Krich has been covering China for 20 years, most recently as the Asian Wall St Journal's main food/sports/culture writer. He's the author of "El Beisbol," "Won Ton Lust" and other literary travelogues.

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China India Olympics Thailand