Confucius goes for gold: a cultural angle on Olympic competition

The week before the Olympics, one of my teachers shared this Chinese idiom with me, as a way of illustrating how, for China, it’s either gold or nothing in the Olympics:

成王败寇
“win, king; lose, bandit”
(chéng wáng bài kòu)

The idea apparently had to do with political power struggles, where the winner would have the power to make himself appear legitimate, while the loser becomes the bad guy. My teacher was trying to make the point that in China, generally speaking, coming in second isn’t usually considered something worth celebrating.

The medal standings from the first few days of play remind me of that little conversation in class. The Western countries, where even bronze is celebrated in most cases, the medals are more or less evenly distributed, but the two Confucian-heritage countries are disproportionately top-heavy on golds and silvers (failed golds), with very few bronzes.

I’m not even going to pretend to be able to draw connections between specific Confucian cultural influences and the disregard for honourable silver and bronze Olympics medals. I brought Confucius into it because that heritage separates the conspicuously gold medal-heavy nations from the others. Confucian heritage not only largely comprises the cultural commonality between China and South Korea, it is also a major cultural border between China and the West. Our Taiwanese boss once described how when he goes to Korea, even thought the language and culture is different, he still feels he’s “in the same system.” He felt much more foreign in Canada.

Canada, of course, not doing so well in the medal rankings, but that’s normal for Canada’s Summer Games performance, owing to the disturbing lack of ice. But we still have Da Shan!

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