Disclaimer (Sorry to my three readers who have already seen this–I love y’all): Due to NBC and the IOC’s aggressive copyright vicegrip, I’m not sure how long my videos will stay up. In some cases, I’ve included hyperlinked stills from vids that I was able to find online; in other cases, I’ve embedded my own recordings.
Day 12: Tuesday, August 3, 2021: Diving – 3m Springboard (Men’s Singles) & Gymnastics – Balance Beam (Women’s)
DIVING: Men’s 3m Springboard Finals
>It’s giving Russian lumberjack hits mid-life crisis; it’s giving Florida nudist resort goer; it’s giving hipster Jesus in a speedo. (ft. Evgenii Kuznetsov)
>Respect to Japanese diver Ken Terauchi who was just a few days shy of 41 when he competed in this event. Very moving to see him get a standing ovation for his last Olympic dive. He had previously retired after the 2008 Beijing Games (going on to take a position as the most overqualified sales rep at a sports equipment company in the history of sales reps at sports equipment companies). He then came out of retirement for Rio 2016, and Tokyo 2020 was his last lap. That makes six total Olympics over the course of 25 years.
>Mini-essay time: The Olympics are a source of wonder, but also, inevitably, sadness, which is what I felt as I watched Chinese diver Xie Siyi win gold. Before I get into it, I should say that I do not wish to fuel dominant, fear-mongering narratives about China and its draconian ways. I think elements of what I talk about below–the high pressure, the unforgiving nature of training, the dehumanization of athletes–are things we see in America and probably a lot of other countries too. God only knows how hypocritical America is when it comes to bashing China for its sports machine when theirs perpetuates its own systems of oppression. That said…
I always hurt for the Chinese athletes, because of how harsh and unforgiving China’s Olympic machine is (China’s, like many countries, is mostly state-sponsored; whereas America’s is largely corporate-sponsored), and how poorly mental health is acknowledged, much less dealt with, in Chinese society at large. I feel like the state often treats athletes like tools, like it’s their responsibility to the nation to get gold, and that in events where China has a reputation to uphold, anything less than gold is unacceptable. It’s not that they want you to win—which is what any country wants–it’s that they expect, maybe even require, you to win.
I think the Chinese concept of 吃苦 (“eating bitterness”)—which I know shows up in Korean and Japanese cultures too—is one factor. People are expected to suffer and sacrifice to a punishing degree in order to achieve certain ends, whether it be making a basic living or winning at the Olympics. I feel like it’s looked down upon if you aren’t able to endure the pain and hardship. You get labeled as lazy, when really, you shouldn’t have to halfway kill yourself just to live.
Of course, I don’t know what these athletes’ internal worlds are like, and I definitely don’t want to discount Xie or other Chinese athletes’ internal drives and their own personal stakes in achieving their dreams. But still, there has to be some amount of internalization of these external messages, right?—that you feel like if you don’t execute what you and your country expect you to, you are a failure? That you are your athletic achievements (see comment from Simone Biles)? That if you lost, you’d feel like you let down 1.4 billion people and misused your country’s resources and then had to deal with public backlash? What is it like to drill from day to night, the same skills over and over and over, to a deadening degree, and still try to find meaning in life? At least in team sports, you’re playing against other teams, and there’s variety. But when it’s a sport like gymnastics or diving, and all the pressure is on you, and you have one shot to nail one perfect performance? That seems like hell.
When Xie Siyi won the men’s 3m springboard gold, he did not look happy. He looked like he could just finally breathe. In the rinse-off area after the results were announced, he put both hands on the shower wall, bracing himself, as everything left his body. He’s been through so much. In terms of injuries alone, he’d sustained an injury at age 16 that put him out of the 10m platform event for good; broke his ankle in 2014, which nearly put him out of the sport entirely; went through surgeries that required him to bow out of Rio 2016; messed up his foot in late 2019; endured a waist injury in 2020; had to cope psychologically with the sudden death of a longtime coach just this past June; and who knows what all else.
So what does it mean to sacrifice your whole self, and to a degree your selfhood, for a single moment? And what does it mean for the reward not to be the addition of joy necessarily, but rather the subtraction of a burden, the substantiation of your suffering? I recognize that I may be projecting here, but it’s hard, having grown up in a Chinese household and community, not to feel like there is at least some truth to this.
I also can’t help but notice across all the events in which China wins gold, how lonely it feels to witness the immediate aftermath. When I see other countries’ athletes win gold, they often get hugs or congratulations from their competitors, but depending on the sport and the culture of the sport, I’ve noticed that that isn’t necessarily the case when Chinese athletes win. Maybe it’s because Chinese athletes are kept more isolated for focus/training purposes or are more isolated from their sport’s broader community throughout the year in part because of the Mainland’s internet restrictions? Maybe it’s because a lot of people in other countries don’t like China as a country? Maybe I’m just noticing the hugs/congrats for other countries’ athletes because a lot of those athletes are American, and in much of the world, America still holds a high level of cultural regard? Maybe it has to do with cultural norms around outward displays of affection, because come to think of it, I also don’t know that I’ve seen a ton of joyous congrats from competitors when Asian athletes win gold in general? (Again, this is depending on the sport. In gymnastics, for example, I see the women supporting each other. But in swimming, when Zhang Yufei and Wang Shun won golds, the reaction from other athletes was very different from when, say, their American or Australian counterparts won. It felt like they were celebrating alone—at least in that moment.)
I just hope that these Chinese athletes and every other athlete in these Games feel like all the bitterness they eat is worth it. And I hope they know that they are worthy regardless.
Men’s 3m Springboard Final Standings:
GOLD: XIE Siyi 谢思埸 (CHN)
SILVER: WANG Zongyuan 王宗源 (CHN)
BRONZE: Jack LAUGHER (GBR)
GYMNASTICS: Balance Beam
>Scoring is always a source of anxiety, especially for sports where judging is subjective. Helpful balance beam scoring guide from the NYT here (click “here” for hyperlink).
>I noticed how for all past broadcasts, NBC Olympics made the footage available for replay immediately after the live broadcast ended. However, the one event for which they did not make it available until after the American prime time television broadcast was Simone Biles’s return on balance beam. You just know these crusty TV execs wanted to maximize ratings off our girl, smh.
>That said, Simone Biles is incredible in every single way.
>You can see Suni (in red) and Simone (just right of the second white-shirted coach) cheering on Guan Chenchen. Love when athletes support each other.
>Guan Chenchen of China wins gold. While she slipped up a little bit in a couple of spots, she still did amazing. Here’s the original routine, not from these Games:
>A couple of cool dismount images from NYT, of Guan and Biles, respectively. Photos by Bedel Saget; composite images by Larry Buchanan:
Balance Beam Final Standings:
GOLD: GUAN Chenchen 管晨辰 (CHN)
SILVER: TANG Xijing 唐茜靖 (CHN)
BRONZE: Simone BILES (USA)