18 Aug 2008

Fallen heroes

filed under: culture  :: japanese culture  :: modern life  :: olympics  :: sports

It was quite heartbreaking to see Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang have to pull out of his Olympic event due to injury. I have to admit that I am now very curious to see how his country reacts to a fallen hero with such big expectations on his shoulders.

I should say at this point that, although I am Asian, I really have no clue how other Asian cultures and nations other than Japan react and respond to - whatever. I'm far more familiar with how American or various European countries react, since I've spend much of my adult life and a few of my childhood years in those places. Initial reaction, at least as it's reported in the Chinese media, seems to be that of dismay coupled with an absolute certainty that he will rise again to the top. It's still to early to say if he can do this or not of course, and I'm wonderine how the nation will respond if he can't fulfill his, and their, lofty expectations.

I have very little doubt of how Japanese people would react to an athlete in Liu Xiang's position. Even if he never fully recovers, he will be exalted for a long, long time, simply because he showed he was really trying hard. In Japan, the effort shown (努力)is almost more important than the win itself. An athlete who has to sweat and train and strain him or herself to achieve his/her goals is held in higher esteem than a naturally gifted one who looks effortless. One of the biggest heroes in Japanese history and folklore is Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a true tragic fallen hero and ultimate loser.

On the other hand, in the U.S. in general I think that concrete success is lauded and treasured above anything else. Michael Phelps is great because he won all those gold medals. If he hadn't won as many, it doesn't really matter that he trained thousands of hours.

Another thing that Americans treasure is show-biz pizazz and self-salesmanship: you have to be good looking, flash a great smile, and speak well to become a true star. On the other hand, Mark Spitz was (I gather) never a big star despite his accomplishments because he wasn't very personable.

As far as heroes that fall off their pedestals though...American society tends to simply cast them aside and forget them, unless they are notorious in other ways. (See: Britney Spears, if she can be called a 'hero').

I'm not entirely sure about the Swiss. In general they don't make a huge fuss about people in the spotlight as other places - perhaps because there simply aren't as many people around (Population of 6 to 7 million is not much), or maybe it's a natural reticence to be overly dramatic.

Britain is an odd case. I used to think they valued fallen, tragic heroes (such as Robert Scott), but these days, the nation is more like the U.S. than old Britain. But still, the ones who manage to stay on top for at least a while get to be knighted, which must be pretty cool.

Comments on this post:

I gotta tell you, it is a

I gotta tell you, it is a total tradjedy that he had to fall out. Regardless of what we or any other society thing, internally and mentally, it must be very emotionally tough for Liu. I can only imagine training that hard, only to see the years of effort shattered. But I guess that is part of the appeal as well. The competition, and knowing that at any time in the contest, anything can happen, and that included the possiblity of getting hurt.

"Michael Phelps is great

"Michael Phelps is great because he won all those gold medals. If he hadn't won as many, it doesn't really matter that he trained thousands of hours."

I think you've misjudged here. Hardly any Americans ever heard of Michael Phelps before the Olympics. He is great in the USA because he overcame an attention deficit disorder and was able to find a suitable outlet -- swimming, apparently because he could concentrate in the water and shut out the world of other noises and whatever else were distractions for him. American TV coverage certainly emphasized those aspects.

That he could win medal after medal only with the supreme effort each one required is what made him great. His mother's steadfastness and support in bringing up her son singlehanded is also a very remarkable part of the story. Americans admire those who overcome a hardship to attain some goal.

I also remember Mark Spitz in his Olympic efforts and achievements. Apparently he was insufferable, before, during, and after the Olympics. I remember thinking, during interviews with him at the time, that he came across as a jerk. His achievement was applauded, but not the man, a dazzling smile notwithstanding. Interesting and quite stark contrast.

I'm a bit too young to

I'm a bit too young to remember Mark Spitz, but I do remember Carl Lewis. I think he was regarded as being a jerk in general even though he was tremendously successful. It does help Michael Phelps that he seems to have a great personality (at least media-wise) and an interesting background. However, I still think that if he had _not_ won as many medals as he had, or otherwise fallen short of expectations, that he would not be as lauded as he is. Americans generally like winners more than anything I think. (And Carl Lewis still gots tons of endorsements deals even if people didn't like his perceived personality...while his maybe nicer but less winning Olympic teammates didnt.)

All of my mainland friends

All of my mainland friends all felt the same as you, but the respect that our culture has for the fallen is great. The man that can bring him self up after the fall is even greater. Thank you for this blog posting really made me think of the home land.

>>health is more important

>>health is more important than anything else and we hope he
>>will recover soon

I totaly agree with you. Well for me he is still a hero.

From a Singaporean Chinese point of view

Both my mainland Chinese friends and myself (and lots of other people out there) feel that although it was a pity this happened, health is more important than anything else and we hope he will recover soon. It was also reported in the Chinese media that some people felt that he should have at least finished the event (even if he didn't win gold in the end) or pulled out beforehand (because lots of people had gotten tickets specifically to see him).

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