Thursday, August 2, 2012

USA vs. Chinese Athletic Models - No Contest

By now the news is out that Chinese diver Wu Min Xia's family kept secret from her the deaths of both her grandparents, as well as her mother's long battle with breast cancer, until after she competed in the Olympics and won a gold medal.  This story has sparked discussion and outrage from parents across the western world - and even generated criticism among some Chinese - about the Chinese government's - and Chinese "Tiger Mom" culture's - model for winning at all costs.

At what costs?  Just a child's humanity.

For a country and a culture so steeped in the traditions of family, this mindset is not only rather disheartening, it is also fundamentally wrong.  Having lived in Taiwan for five years, I am familiar with the nature of a culture that is incredibly driven for success - sometimes to the point of neglecting basics of childhood and humanity.  Teaching English there, I knew the enormous pressure these kids faced to pass an English test to "get into" a college-bound junior high school.  Certainly, the Taiwanese students excel academically.  However, they are so hyper-focused in narrow models of achievement that their students don't attend schools with numerous sports and art and music and clubs and activities and student government - all the components that Americans prefer as part of a well-rounded education.  When Taiwanese (or Chinese or Japanese or Korean) students show an aptitude for something valued by society - like math skills or athletic talent - they are enrolled in programs to pursue it full-time.  That's what led Wu Minxia to pursue diving full-time from the age of six in pursuit of Olympic gold - to the exclusion of almost all other aspects of life - including family.

Contrast that model with new international swimming superstar Missy Franklin.  Missy Franklin is an Olympic medalist and an international sensation.  She still lives in the community of her youth, going to high school and swimming for her high school team and the Colorado club that she has been with since childhood. She still has her original swim coach, and she has turned down opportunities to move to "a swim state" like California and train full time with professional coaches in national Olympic development programs.  Her parents - and she - explain that moving away from Colorado and leaving her friends and family would simply not make her happy. And it certainly wouldn't make her a "better swimmer" with a better chance for success.  She's already at the top of her game.  Thus, Missy Franklin and her parents chose quality of life - family, friends, community - over winning at all costs.

Missy Franklin and Wu Minxia are both superstar female athletes.  Both will be considered among the top female athletes of all time.  Both have won Olympic medals.  Yet, Missy Franklin is incredibly close with her family, still living in the community of her youth, swimming for her high school team, going to prom and the mall, dancing with friends before events, and living the life of a suburban team.  Missy Franklin still shares fond memories of swim meets at her neighborhood pool where she and her close friends would play cards while sitting on their towels between races.  She has turned down millions in endorsement money, so she can still swim with her high school team and join a college swim team, experiencing another step in "growing up."  Wu Minxia, by contrast, was taken from her family by the age of six for daily training in a diving facility, and she moved permanently into a government athletic institute by age sixteen.  She was so far removed from her family - physically and emotionally - that she knew nothing of the deaths of her grandparents and illness of her mother.

Which model would you choose for your child?

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