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OCTOBER 2, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 13

The Feel-Good Factor
China's normally dour athletes surprise Sydney as they realize that winning can be joyful, too

Personal Glory: Sports institutes adapt to China's Me Generation
The Apologists: Japan's Olympians make an exhibition sport of saying sorry
Notebook: Highs and lows from the Sydney Games

There is much artifice in the glittery sport of gymnastics, where athletes who flub routines still paste on smiles to please the judges. But the huge, lopsided grin on Yang Wei's face after he nailed a critical vault last week was 100% natural. Not only had China ended years of frustration by capturing a men's team gold, but its usually stoic gymnasts were cutting loose, passing around high fives like rice wine at a state banquet. Even the carefully coiffed darlings of China's women's team were kicking back, tickled to death with their surprise bronze. "When you relax, you do better," says Liu Xuan, a two-time Olympian who gave each of her teammates a warm hug after they finished their routines. "So we went out and decided to have some fun."

Amy Sancetta/AP.
The Chinese men's gymnastic team let loose after their gold medal-winning performance in Sydney on Sept. 18.

Relaxation? Fun? Could this be the same Chinese who choked so badly in Barcelona and Atlanta that the No. 1 ranked men threw away surefire golds? The same folks who constantly carped that international gymnastic judges were unfairly plotting to keep them off the gold-medal podium? In Sydney, the Chinese were laughing, cheering and occasionally even playing the good sport, clapping for a Taiwanese player during a nail-biter table-tennis match and helping to hush a crowd that was distracting a Bulgarian weightlifter aiming to shatter a world record.

China's transformation from perennial moaners to Olympic cheerleaders was as sudden as it was dramatic. As recently as the men's qualification round two weeks ago, the Chinese gymnasts were still tense, and it showed in their second-place finish going into the finals. Coach Huang Yubin knew he had to do something revolutionary to motivate his team, so he took Sydney's unofficial "No worries, mate" motto to heart. "I told them that to succeed you need more than good technique," recalls Huang, who encouraged his charges to skip the stoicism and cheer each other on during competition. "You also need a relaxed state of mind to renew confidence in your abilities."

COVER: High-Fiving It
China's once dour athletes are winning—and having fun
Personal Glory: Sports institutes adapt to China's Me Generation
The Apologists: Japan's Olympians make an exhibition sport of saying sorry
Notebook: Highs and lows from the Sydney Games

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This laid-back attitude has been a long time coming. China constantly draws flack for its sports assembly line, which relentlessly trains pliable youngsters for national glory. Shortly before the Sydney Games began, American gymnast Blaine Wilson said that, although his Chinese counterparts trained "way more" than his teammates, "the way that the U.S. competes, with our heart and soul, I think that we'll overtake them." Wilson's words rang empty when the U.S. men stumbled to a fifth-place finish in the team finals. America's heart and soul drowned in bile, as the U.S. women bickered over whom to blame for their disappointing fourth-place team result. The only thing the group could agree on was its lack of cohesion. "We knew we had to work on our team unity," concedes Tasha Schwikert-Warren, the youngest member of the women's team. While the Americans grudgingly air-kissed one another after botched routines, the Chinese hugged and snapped pictures like teenagers visiting Disneyworld. "My teammates are just like my sisters," says Yang Yun, who placed sixth in the women's individual all-around event.

A few weeks before the Games, it seemed China was cranking up the usual heavy-duty pressure on its athletes. Zhang Jian, leader of the national gymnastics team, announced that China's male tumblers would be sacked if they didn't come up golden at Sydney. The state press published his remarks but chided him for generating high expectations that could lead to another Olympic choke. The official media muted the pressure even further by lowering its estimate of how many golds China would win. By the time Zhang reached Sydney, he had turned from terminator to therapist: "We have asked coach Huang to chat with the athletes during competition to reduce mental pressure." Zhang also cautioned the team not to snub other competitors. "Of course, we want to win," he said. "But we also want to represent the Olympic spirit, which is about harmony and cooperation."

Part of China's smiley turn is undoubtedly linked to its high-profile bid for the 2008 Olympics. Beijing lost the 2000 Games by just two votes in 1993, and it is determined not to come up short again. Hence the last-minute decision to bar 27 drug-tainted athletes from Sydney just days before the Games were to begin. Hence, too, the effort to bring its strongest and sexiest athletes into the international spotlight through global endorsement contracts and clunkily organized press conferences. "We want the world to realize that we are not sports robots," says table-tennis coach Cai Zhenhua. "We want to make our athletes as famous and popular as any American basketball star."

The danger, of course, is that glamorizing China's athletes could also lead them to develop American-size egos. With advertising contracts and local corporate rewards dwarfing state-sponsored income, there is less and less incentive for China's Olympians to hew to the nation's authorities. "Maybe the reason China is allowing its athletes more freedom is that it can't control them as easily as before," says a Chinese sports journalist at Sydney. For the moment, though, there is no sign that China's competitors are becoming too big for their sneakers. Most acknowledge that the intense work ethic of the state sports schools helped mold them into winners. "Our medals are the result of hard work," says Li Xiaopeng, a member of China's golden men's gymnastics team. "Now is the fun part, where we can sit back and enjoy our success." Coach Huang concurred, as he presided over a post-gold press conference: "Even a sip of this soda tastes like champagne." Of course, as China's cheerful team has learned, the headiest potion of all is victory.

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