The Chinese film Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou, tells a convoluted tale of pre-unified China, in the period known as that of the Warring States (seven of them). In a nod to Sergio Leone’s movies and the idea of the Everyman character beloved of medieval playwrights, the martial arts actor Jet Li plays a character called Nameless, who sets out to assassinate the ruthless Qin warlord.
In a terrific denouement, Nameless spares the putative first Emperor, who will eventually succeed in uniting the states, and giving the dynastic name (pronounced chin) to China.
Made in 2002, and starring other top-line Chinese (and Hong Kong) actors, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi, it is an ambitious, intricate and spectacular film, whose historical import – and its emphasis on sacrifice and unity, concepts dear to China’s ‘communist’ leaders – is perhaps why director Zhang was rewarded with producing the magnificent Beijing Olympic opening ceremony six years later.
China itself remains a fascinating experiment whose direction we (and the Chinese) have yet to see, or even predict. Yet for a country which boasts 4000 years of history – which exposition informed that Olympic ceremony – the Chinese are remarkably eager to emulate a country, the USA, which counts its history and culture in centuries; and not many of those.
The reason, of course is that the US is the hegemon, and China wants and intends to be; which is why the Beijing opening ceremony, and the equally spectacular and costly Asian Games opening (and closing) ceremony in Guangzhou last week managed to out-Hollywood Hollywood.
Elsewhere in sports, cracking the NBA – as Yao Ming, Yi Jian Lian and, previously Wang Zhizhi have done – was bound to be big news in China, since the USA and its economic power and its pervasive media make basketball a big sport around the world. Wang, incidentally led the Chinese team to the Asian Games basketball gold last week.
But, in the grand scheme of things, being an individual Olympic champion in athletics – a sport practised in around 200 countries – has got to top that; hence, the huge profile that Liu Xiang has at home.
Liu’s stunning return to form in Guangzhou last week was cause for a national explosion of joy. There can be no other country in the world, except maybe Jamaica, where a track hero can have such profile. And even Usain Bolt can only marvel at a stadium packed with 80,000 people (some of whom allegedly paid touts/scalpers 20 times face-value), and a home TV audience of some 600 millions!
No wonder that he is the darling of the media and sponsors. Incidentally, the Chinese media always refers to him as, ‘the multi-millionaire athlete’; an echo of the British ‘socialist’ politician Peter Mandelson saying that the Labour party was, “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. One of the contradictions of communism, perhaps?
If he is to be believed, Liu himself did not think he was ready to run 13.09sec; and his preparation was accordingly cautious. He avoided the Athletes’ Village, and stayed in an exclusive hotel. And his only pre-Games interview had been with one of his local, Shanghai newspapers.
In quotes that were reproduced across the world, he told the Oriental Sports Daily that he thought he could do 13.30sec, and that that should be good enough to win. It would have been; his colleague Shi Dongpeng (who beat Liu for the first time, at the Shanghai Golden League last May) won silver with a season’s best 13.38sec.
Nevertheless, on arrival in Guangzhou, I hoped that Liu would be giving a pre-competition press conference, and accordingly I called a colleague, Yang Ming, who is the incoming sports editor (and track expert) at Xinhua, the national news agency.
No chance, said Yang, and that was emphasised when I caught a lengthy preview/feature on Liu on CCTV5, the national sports channel. There were plenty of shots of Liu, stretching, warming up, and doing a few strides. But he had obviously refused to talk, even to CCTV5, and the words were supplied by his coach, Sun Haiping.
It was Sun who had become the scapegoat for Liu’s public demise in Beijing 2008. That whole affair was very strange to outsiders. When an athlete has a serious injury, as Liu had (and as everyone knew he had), usually they simply withdraw before the competition, and tell their tale to the media in advance.
But that charade; of making Liu go out to his blocks in the Birds’ Nest, then limp out of the race before it even began had overtones of public display and example; and sacrifice! Did the Chinese authorities, athletics or otherwise think that the public would not believe them, unless Liu broke down in full view of millions and millions of spectators, in the stadium and on TV?
Liu’s coach did break down. The poor man was hauled in front of the assembled multitude of cameras at a hug press conference, in order to apologise to the nation, for his athlete’s indisposition. This really was like a show-trial. He duly burst in tears, more than appropriate contrition, one might have thought, to satisfy the hardest hearted commissar.
Most reports of Liu’s Asian Games’ success talked of ‘redemption,’ suggesting it expunged the bad memories of Beijing. I doubt it. Nothing could exorcise a farrago and disappointment like that, unable to defend the Olympic title that had brought you so much acclaim; and in front of your home crowd, to boot.
Prior to Guangzhou, I had mused that hurdlers rarely, if ever came back from an injury, and surgical intervention, as serious as Liu had had. I am glad to be proved wrong. To run 13.09sec, the third fastest of the year – and he only began his surge to victory in the second half of the race – suggests that he can get back under 13 seconds, and maybe even retrieve his world record. And with close to two years to go before London 2012, barring another injury, he should be ready to challenge current world leader David Oliver, and world record holder and defending champion Dayron Robles.
Liu knows that better than anyone. The most telling quote, even pre-Guangzhou, was, “Whenever I can reach the top three in the world, or whenever I can break the world record, that is when I will have recovered”.
That he has achieved the first objective, and is well on the way to the second proves that Liu is every bit a conundrum as China itself.
Incidentally, Xinhua sports editor Yang created a furore during the Asian Games when he suggested that the authorities stopped enthusing about piling up the medals – they won a record 199 golds – and care more about the mental and physical health of the Chinese people! That he was able to get away with such a critique suggest that things are changing in China more than we onlookers are aware.
But they and we still need heroes, to acclaim, and occasionally sacrifice. And for the Chinese, in the lead-up to London 2012, there is only one man in the major Olympic sport, and that is Liu Xiang.