Chinese Torture, Olympic Style
By A. D. Freudenheim

22 September 2000

Watching NBC's coverage of the 2000 Olympics, I was aghast at two biography pieces NBC aired on September 17th and 18th about gymnasts from China. In the process of glorifying their admittedly remarkable achievements, NBC endorsed a government, and a nation, that does nothing short of abuse the children it hopes to turn into Olympians.

Shots of little girls and boys, ages 4, 5, 6 and up, teachers pressing and pushing their bodies in unnatural directions; trainers looking and probing for flexibility, strength, and endurance, to cull the best children from the larger group. Where is the child's interest in the sport? Good question, but no visible answer. Do the Chinese state's rights to determine a child's life course take precedence over everything else? Over family? It appears so.

Dong Fangxiao, the feature of one segment, sees her parents twice a year, for one day - and this is the pattern she has lived with since a very young age. In another segment, Aowei Xing's mother acknowledged the loss of her son to the state's gymnastics factory, but said that giving him up was a way of offering him better life. How is this a better life? The Chinese state has fed, clothed, sheltered - and shaped - him in the most oppressive of ways. Presumably, if he wins a gold medal, things might be better; what will happen to him if he does not win is left unanswered.

It is nearly impossible to imagine this happening in the US, because we, as a nation, would be up-in-arms. Throughout the Elian Gonzalez episode, Americans struggled with the very same issues involved here: what kind of freedom, what opportunities, are most important for a growing child? Yet the situations are not comparable. Elian returned to his father and his family, with a stable home and a steady income, albeit lower-middle-class by American standards. Cuba-under-Castro does not have the same level of personal freedom we experience in the US. But what Elian faced in returning to Cuba could best be termed benign neglect when compared with the torture these children go through every day in China.

Chinese gymnastics teams have done well in Sydney. Yet in a nation of 1.4 billion people, there should be no shortage of the national, home-grown talent found in other countries - including ours. It should be possible to find, and raise, young gymnasts who compete out of desire in their hearts for the sport, not the need to serve their nation. No couple, anywhere in the world, should be forced to turn their child over to the state in order to guarantee the child has food, clothing, and shelter. We deplore the use of child soldiers elsewhere in the world, considering it inappropriate and immoral to send children into battle. Here, China is training these children as would-be soldiers, having traded their fatigues for leotards.

The modern Olympics have always been about a combination of individual and national pride. That these feelings are not inseparable is evident merely by looking at the history of athletes who defected to the West during the days of the Soviet bloc. In China's case now, if this Olympic mis-treatment of its athletes is justified by the need to participate (and win) at these games, then perhaps it is time to re-think the Olympic Games. National pride and individual dreams are an effective combination, but the former should never come at the expense of the latter in this "arena."

NBC should hang its head in shame. A part of our massive media complex, NBC has moved from a Cold War-era acceptance of the Soviet and Chinese athlete factories - accepted mostly in silence, part of the cost of war - to an endorsement of the Chinese system, which flies in the face of everything that America, and American freedom, represents. The Olympics Games are entertainment. When entertainment requires this kind of self-sacrifice, our values - for willingly watching and participating - and the values of the Chinese are severely out of line with basic human standards.

Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired!