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Olympic glory, World Cup fame, or another Yao Ming?

Updated: 2024-03-26 07:51 ( China Daily )
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A. Thomas Pasek [Photo provided to China Daily]

In the modern era, China often tops the gold medal table during the Summer Olympics by the time the closing ceremony has tooted its last toot and lowered the curtain on the quadrennial sporting spectacle. Whether one measures success by the number of yellow metal medals earned, or overall medals, the world's second-most populous country certainly holds its own in Olympic contests, particularly the Summer Games.

The Olympics began in ancient Greece as a way for various city states to show their stuff and compete in hard-fought games that didn't involve actual warfare. But the Summer Olympics as we know them today officially kicked off in 1896, in, where else, their ancestral home of Athens. The Winter Games took another 28 years to get going, back in 1924 in France.

The People's Republic of China, founded in 1949, was a relative latecomer to the athletic extravaganza, not having competed at the Olympics until 1952, at the Summer Games in Finland. Therefore, it's understandable that the country has had some catching up to do. Combined medals by country — gold, silver and bronze — for both hot and cold-weather versions of the contests are, for the top five: the US (2,959), Russia, including USSR (2,012), Germany, including East and West (1,821), Great Britain (950) and China (713).

But despite being No 5 on the all-time list, over the past couple decades, China has been on a tear, a veritable gold-buying frenzy, with its yellow metal takeaways often topping the charts. If things continue apace, China will soon be barreling its way up the all-time rankings and knocking at the Olympic superpowers' doors.

I lack public funding or research grants to conduct a scientific survey into what would be the greatest national honor for modern Chinese sports fans — topping the overall medals charts at either the Summer or Winter Games, seeing a few more Yao Mings dominate the NBA (or the CBA), or, seemingly the Holy Grail for most of the younger locals I asked in Beijing, taking home the solid gold FIFA World Cup trophy?

The responses I received on which would represent the greatest glory for the country varied greatly, with older folks often being content to lead the medals table, whereas younger sports fans often said a soccer World Cup championship would best float their boat.

Also, responses were highly subjective, with one particular trend worthy of note: diving and table tennis championships are still coveted, but running the table on a sport traditionally not dominated by China is considered by many to be even more valuable. FIBA basketball honors, FIVB volleyball glory, tennis grand slams and even golf major wins were all touted about. Naturally, responses were heavily affected by the favorite spectator, or participatory sport, of those being queried.

There was generally a bit more excitement about another NBA star like Yao Ming emerging out of China than another female tennis star and two-time Grand Slam winner Li Na making her mark on the global stage. However, both names are household across China and have brought great glory to the country's athletic bragging rights.

In short, those saying a soccer World Cup championship elicited the biggest flickers in respondents' eyes, but if you would indulge me in a bit of self-surveying — and in-your-face subjectivity — if I were a local, I would currently be most excited about the lengthy list of up-and-coming Chinese female tennis players. Because my love for the game is never out of bounds, even though "love" means "nada" in tennis.

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