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Bad boy and diving diva flout China's athletic norm

Badminton player Lin Dan and diver Guo Jingjing stand out – both as gold medalists and as rebels in a sports system specifically designed to avoid such things.

By By Mark Sappenfield and Zhang Yajun / August 17, 2008

BADMINTON: Lin Dan of China, who has dominated the sport since 2004, won gold Sunday.

Alvin Chan/Beijing

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Beijing

Even in an Olympics where each day has held drama for the host China, tonight was a little more “Days of Our Lives” than most.

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China might now have fistfuls of gold medalists, but diver Guo Jingjing and badminton shuttler Lin Dan, who both claimed gold within hours of each other tonight, are far more to China than that.

Guo is China’s diving princess, at turns perfect and petulant – once derided as the Britney Spears of diving by China’s state-run news organization, Xinhua. Lin has dominated badminton since 2004 and, if media accounts are to be believed, has several times tried to hit his own coach and other players with his racket.

Guo and Lin are the bad boy and bad girl of a sports system designed specifically to prevent such things. Yet for China’s adoring masses, all that matters is the result, and for four years running, none have delivered more consistently or with more mastery of their craft than Guo and Lin.

“She is taking a gold medal for her country, and that is all that matters,” says Bao Handan, a conference interpreter from Guangdong province, about Guo.

“The rest is her life,” she says.

In reality, however, that has not been the case – for either of the two. For all its newfound Olympic success, China’s passion is still for those sports where it has long been a world power. It is a nation of divers, shuttlers, and table-tennis players. Guo and Lin sit at the top of that athletic food chain.

They also happen to be blessed with pin-up good looks.

Zeng Zhu, a student from Sichuan province, is standing outside the badminton venue before Lin’s gold-medal match begins, searching for a ticket. If she cannot find one, she jokes that at least she might be able to hear the game from outside.

With passable conviction, she insists that she is not here merely to take in the magnificent sight that is Lin, though she admits that he “is so handsome.” He already has a girlfriend, she knows: teammate and silver medalist Xie Xingfang.

“I am fine,” she insists. “But when some of my girlfriends heard that Lin Dan had a girlfriend, their hearts were broken.”

To fans across China like Xiao Xu, he is “Super Dan.” Xiao had tickets to hockey but gave them away just so he could come here in the hopes of finding a ticket. He has not succeeded but is undaunted.

“I love Lin Dan because he plays badminton so well,” Xiao says.

“I heard the rumor about how he beat up his coach,” he adds. “Who knows whether it was true or not?... We support Lin Dan, no matter what.”