When Young Generations of Chinese Athletes Take Off Their Poker Faces

Three years ago, the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics were coming to a close. China received 26 golds, 18 silvers, and 26 bronzes in the games. Compared to its outstanding performance in Beijing and London, China’s performance in Rio seemed quite unsatisfying. However, despite having displayed an extremely zealous appetite for medals just ten years ago, now Chinese audiences showed more tolerance, support and encouragement to athletes not only for their victories but also for their personalities.

Unlike older generations who only faced cameras when they were demonstrating their diligence in the field, the younger Chinese athletes have been more willing to share their personal lives with the public. This transition reflects the changes in the Chinese sports management system, the evolution of people’s attitudes towards gold medals and even the more diverse array of post-retirement opportunities available for athletes.

Chinese athletes once impressed people as disciplined machines who pursued gold medals for “the honor of the country”. In Vancouver 2010, after winning China’s first Olympic title in women’s 1,500 short track speed skating, Zhou Yang expressed her appreciation for her parents first before thanking her country, triggering much controversy. At that time, athletes were supposed to follow a strict speech protocol. Following the event, Yu Zaiqing, Deputy Direction of the China General Administration of Sport, said, “There is nothing wrong with expressing appreciation for one’s parents, but they should put the country before their parents, because the country invested a lot in their sports careers.”

The argument about the country’s investment in athletes’ careers refers to China’s national system. Most athletes in China are managed by the General Administration of Sport directly. The administration not only distributes resources to support the costs of training, games, and other expenses for athletes, but also plays the role of an agency. Athletes need to get approval from and share related incomes with the administration to participate in social and commercial events. What’s more, if athletes earn medals or perform outstandingly in international games, they are assigned a job directly upon their return. Under the centralized management system, athletes, on the one hand, have nothing to worry but focusing on their athletic performance; on the other hand, they have to suppress their personal opinions to fit into the uniformity.

The rise to popularity of Yao Ming and Li Na broke stereotypes about Chinese athletes. People were surprised that Chinese athletes could not only win games, but also win people’s love for their confidence and humor, which are more powerful and beneficial than gold medals to Chinese sports because they deliver a confident and positive image to the world. From that moment on, more Chinese athletes started expressing their true feelings instead of expressing their gratitude mechanically. The absurd criticism that Zhou Yang once had to face no longer holds rank.

After Yao and Li’s retirements in 2011 and 2014 respectively, people were looking for the next sporting idol to carry the flag. Fu Yuanhui, an athlete from the Chinese swimming team, filled this gap in Rio. She became one of the top searched names across Chinese online platforms because of her hilarious interview after the semi-final of Women’s 100m backstroke. In the interview, her funny and lovable facial expressions and positive attitude made the whole country, and possibly the whole world fall in love with her. Even after two years after Rio 2016, her interview video still received around 25,000 likes on the official Instagram account of the Olympic Games. “Mystic energy”, the words with which she expressed how much effort she put in the game, soon became the hottest buzz of that year. Although she did not win any gold medals, she was definitely the most popular athlete on the Chinese internet at that time. “I love her so much! Gold medals are not that important. As long as you enjoy the game, that’s enough!” Said a comment reflecting most people’s attitudes.

Her humorous and fun character not only increased the number of Fu’s followers on Weibo, but also raised her commercialization value and brought her many invitations from popular reality shows. Early this year, Fu, along with her father, joined My Little One, a reality show in which fathers observe the daily lives of their daughters. In the show, similar to many other Chinese young girls, Fu enjoyed here parent’s love, while also forced to listen to their endless chatter. This is a side of her personal life that no other athlete has revealed.

Fu is not the only athlete to actively participate in reality shows. For example, Zou Shiming, the gold medalist in men’s boxing in 2008 and 2012, was in a show titled Where are We Going, Dad? with his son, receiving a lot of likes and attention. He also participated in the Chinese version of Roast!, in which he mentioned that starring in reality shows can both promote Chinese sports to a wider audience and also help him prepare for life after he retires from boxing.

As mentioned before, under China’s national system, athletes could be assigned a position after retirement as long as they meet some standards. However, more and more athletes now decide to pursue other possibilities instead of receiving an iron bowl from the government. Performing in reality shows becomes a normal way for them to get out of their comfort zone whether or not they want to take up a career in acting. On the one hand, reality shows require few professional skills and provide high payment for little time commitment, which is relatively convenient for those athletes who have been immersed in professional sports teams for years with little social experience. On the other hand, reality shows can help them build social connections outside of athletics and maintain their popularity, which can help them expand their commercial opportunities. A typical example is Li Xiaopeng, the most successful gymnast in Chinese sports history. Similar to Zou Shiming, after participating in several reality shows with his wife and daughter, he created an image of a fantastic husband and dad who knows how to take care of his family. Benefiting from this image, he soon successfully expanded his household care businesses.

Certainly, there are still a lot of discussions about athletes’ appearance in non-sports shows, especially when athletes do not perform as well as people expect. After being cast in several shows this year, Fu was doubted by many people who were unsure whether Fu could still keep her top performance in international games while being cast in so many programs. The discussions reached their peak when she failed to qualify for the 100-meter backstroke, the game where she received national-scale attention and applause three years ago. Responding to the critics, Fu did not say much but insisted that she did her best. Maintaining a balance is always hard, whether regarding Fu Yuanhui or the Chinese sports leadership.