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.

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

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.

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.”

Guo’s famous attack on a competitor was verbal.

Earlier this year, at a press conference where Guo looked bored, fiddling with her jewelry, she called a rival diver the “Canadian fatty.” Later in the press conference, she excoriated a journalist who asked her about a recent bad performance.

The People’s Daily website, the Communist party newspaper, called Guo arrogant and bemoaned the lack of class among Chinese athletes. It was not the first time that Guo fell afoul of the establishment. After the Athens Games, where she won two gold medals, she was suspended for signing too many endorsements.

In China, where athletes are thoroughly controlled by the state and as much as half their earnings go to the government, it was tantamount to a declaration of independence. She had to make an apology on national television to be reinstated.

Now, properly managed, she made more than $2 million in endorsements last year, third only to basketball star Yao Ming, and 2004 gold-medal hurdler Liu Xiang.

On Sunday night, at least, she was on her best behavior.

One journalist asks if she will ever forgive the media for their criticism of her this year. She deftly evades the question.

Yet even in winning the 3-meter springboard gold – her second medal of these Games and sixth of her career, making her the most decorated Olympic diver ever – Guo gives hints about what so infuriates and enchants her country.

Above the pool, she is grace incarnate, the judges offering numerical gasps – 9.5s and even a perfect 10 – as if she was a sketch taken from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks and hung in mid-air, the fiber of every muscle stretched taut.

She wins by 16.75 points, diving’s equivalent of a two-touchdown lead.

Yet as other medalists embrace each other and smile, she stands in the poolside shower. It is this element of aloofness that makes her the “springboard diva” – a complete detachment from her surroundings that often seems to be boredom.

At the press conference, she says it is focus.

“When I watch her interviews, she doesn’t seem to care about” all the distractions, says Liu Na, a fan who has followed her progress since the 2000 Sydney Games, where she won two silvers.

As to whom Guo is dating now (the grandson of a Hong Kong millionaire) or whether her endorsement deals make her selfish, Liu doesn’t care.

Guo is a key part of China’s “Dream Team” – a diving squad that could win all eight diving gold medals here. After tonight’s gold, it is now five for five.

“She trained hard and got a gold medal,” says Liu. “That is enough.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.