This week, Wu Minxia of China and her diving partner took the gold in the 3-meter synchronized springboard event at the London Olympics, becoming the first diver ever to win golds at three consecutive games. But her victory celebrations were cut short when her parents belatedly revealed some distressing news: Wu's grandparents had died a year ago, and her mother had contracted cancer eight years ago, all unbeknownst to the diver. The revelation cast a spotlight on China's state-run athletics program, which separates children from their families and controls every aspect of their lives, all in an effort to transform China into a global athletic power. Here, a guide to Wu's ordeal:
Why didn't Wu's parents tell her beforehand?
They didn't want to interfere with her training. "Wu called us after her grandmother died," Wu Jueming, her father, told The South China Morning Post. "I gritted my teeth and told her: 'Everything's fine, there aren't any problems.'" Wu's father says keeping his daughter in the dark was "essential" to her training, adding, "We never talk about family matters with our daughter." Wu's parents also concealed her mother's battle with cancer, and reportedly would have kept their daughter in the dark if the cancer had not gone into remission.
What role did China's government play?
Wu, 26, has been training daily at a diving camp since the age of six, and at 16 was whisked away from her family to a government-run sports institute. "She rarely saw her family, didn't attend school — didn't do anything but dive, all day, over and over again for this last decade," says Barry Petchesky at Deadspin. Her parents keep up with her by following her account on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. They watched her perform in London from the stands, but didn't meet her in person before the event. "We've known for years that our daughter doesn't belong to us anymore," says her father. And Wu's story is "merely one chapter in a giant tome" about China's abusive athletics program, says Gabe Zaldivar at Bleacher Report.
How have people reacted?
In response to Wu's ordeal, Weibo erupted with criticisms of the Chinese government. "Apart from making people crazy, our Olympic strategy also makes people lose their humanity," one commentator said. The government has also been savaged for its cool treatment of slightly less-than-spectacular athletes, particularly its habit of officially congratulating gold-medal winners through its state news service, but ignoring competitors who merely win silver or bronze.
Will China reform its athletic program?
Probably not. China is currently leading the medal count, and its success is a source of "pride within Chinese political circles," says Martin Rogers at Yahoo Sports. "The debate over success vs. humanity is likely to remain just that," says Petchesky. "A debate."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 10 things you need to know today: September 22, 2014
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- How U2 became the new Nickelback
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Save the world... by changing how you pee
- Why does Fareed Zakaria still have a job?
Subscribe to the Week