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An icon-free nation: in a sport context

November 14, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

No one can possibly miss all those major media coverage about the sex abuse scandal in Penn State University during the past week. While the public angrily accused the disgusting crime and sympathized the eight victims, lots of the reports focused on the legendary head coach of Nittany Lions, Joe Paterno. Not long after Joe became the winningest head coach in Division I football on October 29th, this ugliest scandal on the history of college sport brought him into spotlight again, and eventually forced him to quit the job where he has devoted himself for more than half century.

Around Joe Paterno in such a complex case, too many complicated emotions from different parties grew at the same time. The shocked public was asking for the facts; the columnists were throwing their opinions on whether Joe deserves the dismissal; the agitated students in Penn State demonstrated us a night of riot which was very expectable; and there were definitely some hidden emotions within the Athletic Department and the board of trustees in Penn State. Nevertheless, one undeniable thing is the respects from all people to Joe Paterno as a sport icon. All the discussions, panic, and anger are all raised because of the possibly distaining to this icon by this vicious case. Look at those emotional students supporting Joe Paterno outside his house, you will understand how important this iconic person means to them. While college football is argubly the most nationally addicted sport, a legendary head coach could mean even larger than the game itself. He is not only one of the reasons that Penn State owns the fourth largest stadium in the world, but also one of the contributors help the school reach its current size of enrollment and level of popularity.

Seeking in my mind, I wish I could find a parallel sport icon back in my home country China. What I can think of are hundreds of heroic athletes who put the nation into the top place in Olympic Games, and some influencing idols such basketball player Yao Ming, 110m hurdles runner Liu Xiang and women tennis new power Li Na. However, it is not easy for me to come up with someone can be convincingly described as an “icon” as Joe Paterno for college football. To people who love that sport, the iconic image comes not from the position or authority owned by someone, but the leadership he/she demonstrates through the long-term committment to the game, the heavy contribution to the development of the sport, the great charisma delivered through years of communicating with the public, and of course the outstanding winning performance. Unfortunately in China, the sport environment is not that good for developing such a group of sport icons. The messed up sport governing system, the unsupportive media and the lack of the citizenship awareness are majorly responsible for this icon-free sport environment.

Grown under the national athletic system, many celebrity-level Chinese players are not as outspoken as many foreign athletes. People can judge their achievement by counting the championships they win and their sporting skills in the broadcasting, but very unlikely to feel their distinctive personality. Most of these athletes from the traditional player developement system choose to work for different sport governing body after their retirement, which in China seems like an “official placement” gives the athletes a stable social status as a reward for their performance on the field. However, as inexperienced officials without sufficient higher education, these retired athletes cannot have enough power or insight to make constructive contribution to the development of that sport. Consequently, instead of viewing them as sport icons, the knowledgeable fans often attach them with tags of “politics” or “bureaucracy”.

Hongbo Gao waved his hand to fans after his last game as the head coach of China National Football (soccer) Team. China beat Jamaica 1-0 in this game.

For retired athletes who become coaches of different levels in China, their life is no much better. Hongbo Gao is a young and devoted soccer coach in China. During his athletic life as a productive forward, he received many honors including the best scorer of the Asian Youth Tournament and the National Football A League. After coaching several teams in the A League and learning the advanced coaching philosophy in Europe, his continuous hard work paid off to make him one of the most successful coaches in China. During his two-year term of coaching in China National Team from 2009, he recorded a 24-13-5 (win-draw-loss) performance and brought China National Team from 108th (as of Jul 2009) on FIFA national team ranking to 70th (as of Oct 2011). From my perspective, Gao’s coaching ability, working ethics and his highly committed career path can very possibly make him an iconic person with millions of advocates in China. However, despite his 6-game winning streak, China Football Association (CFA) replaced him by famous Spanish coach Jose Camacho in August 2011, right before the second stage of 2014 World Cup Qualifier.

There were doubts about this decision from media and some fan groups, but nothing emotional happened like the fan riot in Penn State to retain this good coach. The main sport media was just mildly discussing this questionable decision. It was like no media coverage trying to positively direct people’s perception towards this team after the recent disclosure of huge corruption within China Football Association. The consequence was not surprising considering the Spanish cannot even understand the playing style and the players’ characteristics in such a short time: China National Team encountered three consecutive losses.

Sport reporter Leonard Koppett wrote in his book “Sports Illusion, Sports Reality”: Sports reflect social conditions; they don’t cause them. The icon-free sport world in China to some extent reflects the current situation of citizenship awareness in China. People are not giving credits to the people fully devoted themselves in a certain area such as a sport, nor helping construct a healthy community which values those potential iconic persons. Comparing with Gao’s dismissal as a lack of public voice, Joe Paterno was fired in a sad but noble atmosphere. Many American people understand Joe did not meet his moral duty to prevent the further development of the sex abuse tragedy, but at the same time they feel sorry that the legendary coach has to end his career in such a regretful way. People fulfilled the obligation of citizenship by accusing the vicious behavior affecting the well-being of the society, while recognizing Joe Paterno as a great coach for what he did for Penn State Football and the whole college sport. Though distained by the scandal, the 84-year-old Joe will still be perceived as a sport icon such as the way when people talk about Bobby Knight and Jerry Tarkarian.

On November 12th, Penn State University hosted their first game without Joe Paterno as head coach since 1966. Fans filled the beaver stadium’s 107,000 seats. They prayed for the eight kids in the sex abuse scandal before the game, called the name of every Nittany Lions’ players, and of course, used different ways to show their love and respect to Joe Paterno who was not in his beloved stadium for the game.

Penn State Fans during Nov 12th game against Nebraska

Despite it turned out to be their first loss in conference games of the season at this special moment, no post-game riot or irrational behaviors from fans were reported. All you can feel in the stadium was just those complex but noble emotions, and the invisible connections among the people wear the same dark blue color. The whole Penn State community get more united than ever to face this PR disaster, showing support for the victims in and out of the stadium, demonstrating the characteristics valued and instilled by their ex-coach, Joe Paterno. They lost the game, but did not lose the right way of idolizing their sport icon.

 Just one day before Penn State’s loss, on the opposite spot of the earth, China National Football (team) also lost the must-win away game against Iraq, and consequently the chance to enter the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Most of the fans started making jokes about another familiar loss of the National Team, while only few of the disappointed fans began thinking of Coach Gao and grumbling on the internet about the earlier dismissal. Chinese people are getting lost in this icon-free nation, which may happen not only in a sport context.
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