How patriotism has been the biggest star at the Asian Games
12.11.2010 - 15.11.2010
Patriotism is so often an idea which is accompanied with highly negative connotations in a world that is increasingly integrated and where national pride seems to be a dirty word. Think of the debates that persist regarding the flying of the St George’s flag in England or, as is always cited in this debate, the darker side of nationalism demonstrated by numerous right-wing parties around the world who use patriotism as a thin veil for racism and exclusion. All too often patriotism is tarnished by this image and through fear and lack of
understanding is dismissed by the intellectual and political elite (especially in Britain) as the preserve of the 'ignorant' and 'lower classes'.
Despite never subscribing to this opinion it is impossible to escape the general feeling of negativity that has perpetually surrounded patriotism; that was until I came to China. From the moment I arrived in China it was clear patriotism played a hugely different role here, speak to any Chinese person about how they feel about China, and the vast majority are falling over themselves to tell you of their love for China. National flags fly in any direction you care to look, schools have their own flag raising ceremonies each week, there is a 7 day holiday for ‘national day’, and the national anthem is sung at every possible occasion with passion and huge pride. Contrast this to the annual debate surrounding St George’s day and patriotism, the running jokes about the national anthem and the fear of being regarded as a thug for flying the flag all of which is endemic in British society.
Now after you escape these rather superficial criteria as a measure of patriotism it is possible to move beyond this narrow definition and consider the altogether more positive and constructive version of ‘national love’ that I have found in China.
On Friday the 16th version of the Asian Games began in Guangzhou with much élan. A spectacular opening ceremony overlooking the Pearl River showcased the history and the culture which runs through this corner of China. Fireworks, stunning performances and ingenious use of water and stadia took the spectacular outside the conventional, and produced a display to rival that of the Beijing Olympics two years ago, and one which London will find near impossible to match come 2012. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11746264)
Now why do I mention this? It is because the games are providing examples on every level of how patriotism can be entirely positive and progressive.
The most obvious side to this is the total and flagrant support for each and every Chinese athlete, who, no matter what their sport, are regarded as heroes, untouchable to mere mortals. The moment any competitor in the distinctive red and yellow of china takes to whichever area it is they occupy the atmosphere changes immediately. A ripple of noise and excitement begins as half the crowd see the screens which indicate a Chinese competitor is up next. As the information is transmitted around the stands the ripple takes the crowd into a whole new dimension. An unrestrained excitement takes hold and builds to the inevitable crescendo. The chants begin. The banging begins. And it is impossible not to be swept along with them as they push each other to greater and louder support.
This is not meant as a comparison, I am fully aware that the support for the majority of British competitors in most sports is just as vociferous and unyielding. However, having attended many sporting events in Britain I am yet to come across such an atmosphere created so purely and unflinchingly out of an overwhelming sense of patriotism. That is not to say the fans are better in China or indeed anywhere else. Simply that the support seems to come from a different source from that found in England and Britain, which is built more on knowledge and passion for the sport rather than simply the country itself.
To judge ‘patriotism’ from a crowd at a sporting event is largely arbitrary as by definition those attending an international event are going to be supporting their own country. What really brings the idea of patriotism into a tangible sphere in China is currently to be found all over the city, in the form of a large army of volunteers.
Clad in their distinctive white and lime green uniforms, volunteers are to be found everywhere in the city, indeed in recent days it has been impossible to go anywhere without coming across a volunteer in one form or another. At over 150 posts around the city information booths are manned by up to 20 people at any one time, each and every one giving up their time to help and support any visitor, or indeed local, with any query they may have. At every stadium, at every metro station, at the central road crossings and at the major attractions there is somebody on hand to help and support you.
Whilst hugely impressive this might not be seen as special to some as it appears to others. What really sets these volunteers apart though is their insatiable desire to help in any way they possibly can. A huge smile and genuine excitement has been conveyed in all my interactions with the volunteers, and it is impossible to escape the sense that they are genuinely delighted to be sharing their city and their culture with you. Taxi drivers, metro station workers and all volunteers have taken a crash course in English and are visibly pleased and excited to put it
into effect. Just one great example of this was as I boarded a bus the other day, a lady sat on the front seat with her son next to her, and as I caught their eye both giggled to each other before launching into a very excited, “Welcome to our city, I hope you are enjoying the games”.
Despite being beautifully charming it leads to some fantastic moments of language cross-pollination. As I left the Velodrome yesterday I was met by an excited volunteer who implored me to enjoy the match and come to him if I needed help. An interesting concept considering was just leaving out the gate!!
Cynics will dismiss this as just another comment failing to note that this is merely a façade and a further example of China trying to distort its true nature. Whilst inevitably the city has been improved immeasurably during the preparation for the games, it surely would be hypocritical to suggest London will not be doing the same come June 2012.
The end result of the volunteering is not the point I am trying to tease out, rather the reasons behind the volunteering itself. I would suggest that to a greater or lesser extent it has been patriotism, undoubtedly mixed with a large portion of personal excitement and self-fulfilment, which has driven such a vibrant and excellent set of volunteers. Having spoken to many of my colleagues in the past couple of days they assure me that this dynamic is changing and the volunteers are less driven by patriotism than 10 or 20 years ago when Beijing held the Asian Games in 1990. Equally however, all concede that patriotism and the genuine love and pride in both Guangzhou and China is an important factor in both the quality and quantity of volunteers even today, with many more applying to help than were in fact needed!
The result has been a wonderfully refreshing experience, as the Asian Games have provided a great insight to the positive power of national pride. I think Britain would do well to reassess its attitudes towards patriotism, and I hope it can open its eyes to the great opportunities it presents. In many respects the evidence in Guangzhou suggests that it can help empower a population to take a pride in their community and their country and help move the country in a very positive direction. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of British patriotism over the past three decades, I hope the debate can be drawn into a wider sphere of national pride and respect that ultimately would provide a much more impressive legacy than any stadia London 2012 leaves behind.
Now enough of the insightful and on to the sport. This weekend I was lucky enough to experience several of the games in person. I spent a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday at the cricket where China and Japans' women teams beat Malaysia and Nepal respectively in some good quality T20. Saturday evening I spent at the wushu (sanshou), expecting the beautifully flowing, rather gymnastic, non-contact martial art i had been led to believe i had tickets for, I was met with a cross between taekwondo and Thai kick boxing. Following the initial shock of two people coming out ready to beat seven shades of whatever out of each other over 3 two minute rounds, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable evens so far. Sunday was spent at the judo, as Chinese athlete after Chinese athlete got knocked out leaving the home crowd far from happy. Yesterday I went to the velodrome to watch the track cycling which proved to be just as action packed and exciting as the wushu and judo.
So after long deliberation here is my top three moments so far…
1. In the Wushu, second fight up, Iran vs Afghanistan women’s -65kg, the taller rangier Iranian swivels after ducking a punch and swings her leg at her shorter the Afghan opponent catching her in the face with her foot and knocking her totally stone cold. As she fell backwards we saw her eyes roll back and her gum guard go flying, and without exageraition she still hadn’t moved a muscle as she was being carried out on a stretcher. It was seriously amazing though, as it appears to be the only sport where they have a designated person to wipe blood up after every fight!! (In true Chinese style rules had to be followed and they had to wait for her to be officially counted out before they adminstered medical treatment)
2. Judo, three seconds from the end of the last fight of the session, and one point down, the Kazakhstani fighter produces the perfect throw to end the fight by Ippon (perfect throw meaning an automatic win) to send the noisy Kazakhstani contingent in the crowd into uproar.
3. At the velodrome yesterday in the men’s team pursuit the Asian record was lowered three times in a row. First up the Chinese team shave two clear seconds off the record, huge! Only minutes later silence falls as the Koreans take a further two seconds off it...huge! Finally annoyance turns to frustration and anger as Hong Kong duck just insdie Korea's time, unfortunately meaning the Chinese team was left to battle it out for the bronze medal…quite a fall from grace as they had been Asian record holders ten minutes earlier!
That’s pretty much it from me I will be posting again in the next couple of days to fill you all in on the last few weeks. Tales from the high seas and hot springs to follow…..