Overjoyed athlete wins heart of nation long obsessed with top honors

By Ni Tao
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, August 12, 2016
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Cartoon figures of Rio Olympics bronze medalist Fu Yuanhui, drawn by Chinese netizens show the swimmer's reaction after her qualifying match. [Shanghai Daily]

Swimmer Fu Yuanhui shot to fame almost overnight.

At the Rio Olympic Games, she fin­ished the women's 100-meter backstroke swimming final in 58.76 seconds, net­ting a bronze medal. But what made her China's latest Internet darling has noth­ing to do with the medal, and everything to do with the way she spoke to media after the qualifying match, where she ranked third.

Third place is rarely a source of pride or something to crow about for many athletes. To coax the swimmer to ex­press her ambitions, the journalist, who is also from China, asked Fu if she did her best. Expected answers from Chi­nese athletes are normally like this: "Idon't feel fit enough today," or "Ihave yet to find my best form, but am sure will do in the final," and so on.

Fu deviated from this routine and replied, a little too candidly perhaps, that not only did she do her best, but her result was the product of "prehistoric power." Previously an online slang term derived from a popular drama series, "prehistoric power" (or honghuangzhili) has become a buzzword known across China.

This, however, was only one of Fu's memorable lines. The 20-year-old native of Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Prov­ince, also surprised the journalist by saying that she didn't expect much out of the final, because she was sufficiently satisfied with her third-place finish.

The following day, when asked why she was only 0.01 second from grabbing a silver medal in the final, she said perhaps her arms was a bit too short.

As she spoke, Fu shrugged from time to time, with her eyes bulging, visibly surprised to be told that she swam faster than expected. And she laughed — yes, laughed, that is, without any restraint. Her unrestrained demeanor has led some to describe her as a "living emoticon."

Thanks to the hilarious interview, past antics and witticisms have also come to light. For example, when asked by Netizens on Weibo to name what she thought was the most beautiful swimming style, Fu answered to the effect that whatever a swimmer does is beautiful if he/she is born beautiful.

We rarely see a Chinese athlete being this straightforward and humorous. But in young and optimistic athletes like Fu, we have witnessed an exhilarating change. They're honest, unpretentious, unafraid to be themselves and speak their minds even on formal occasions.

This is a major departure from the previous generation of lachrymose Chinese athletes who would easily tear up at the first note of the national anthem, or by failing to live up to the entire nation's expectations.

Fu could, perhaps, have been one of this sort. During the interview, she said she was so worn out by the intensive three months' training that she felt almost like dying. In the past, China's obses­sion with gold medals afflicted not just officialdom, but the general populace as well. Referred to as "gold medalism," this obsession has been a source of stress for many Chinese athletes.

A good example of "gold medalism" on the wane is the popular attitude toward star swimmer and Olympic champion Sun Yang. After he lost the gold medal in Rio for the men's 400-meter freestyle final, Sun burst into tears. But at least he could seek consolation in the tidal wave of fan encouragement online.

Xinhua carried a commentary praising Chinese Netizens for being more tolerant of failures in sports. "They have overcome the narrow-minded fetish over gold medals," it said.

There is more to extol than the tolerant viewers, though. For one, Fu's optimism and low-key profile carry a message for today's society, where pervasive one-upmanship leads either to prickly self-aggrandizement or, in the case of failures, needless self-debasement. In our race to get ahead, many of us take life's many challenges too seriously.

Fu's success also illustrates that a true, frank estimate of one's capabilities can also endear oneself to others.

In watching the Olympics, we should marvel not just at the beauty of sports, or how many medals are won. We should learn how to take accomplishments, defeats, and everything in between, with grace and good humor.

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