The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.
June 2, 2008 5:28 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
An East Asian capital. A proud, persevering country. A resurgent economy. A people eager to strut their stuff. A landmark Olympic Games.
Xie Yuxin has seen it all before.
One of China's best-loved soccer players, Xie prowled the midfield for his country at the 1988 Games in Seoul.
The first Chinese player to compete professionally abroad - with Dutch club PEC Zwolle in 1982 - Xie appeared in more than 100 international matches for China between 1987 and 1996.
Sweden and West Germany blanked his 1988 squad, 2-0 and 3-0 respectively. The Chinese held Xie and Tunisia scoreless - a 0-0 draw. It was China's first Olympic soccer appearance, three games and out.
Xie enjoyed Seoul, nonetheless. He was 19 years old.
Two decades later, Xie is coaching middle-schoolers in Shenzhen - China's under-15 national team.
Xie and I recently talked generation gaps, the 1988 and 2008 Games, his career, China's sports system and soccer strategy. Check out our conversation below.
(Note: Zeng Jianguo, a Chinese university student, contributed to this report)
A young Xie poses in his national team uniform
Xie (left) holds a soccer ball beside one of Beijing's Olympic mascots
Why soccer? What attracted you to the game? How did you achieve success?
Soccer was - and is - really popular in my hometown, Meizhou (Guandong province). My family was so poor. I loved playing soccer and recognized it as a way out. I began playing when I was seven years old, maybe six.
I had great coaches. They were smart, and helped me improve. The number one reason for my success: hard work.
I joined a team in 1980. Five years later, I was selected for the under-17 national team. In 1987, the under-22 national team. In 1988, I represented China in Seoul at the Olympics.
You played in a lot of competitions - which will you always remember as special?
Of course, the 1988 Olympics. Those games were incredible. Our 1989 World Cup qualifiers, too.
As an athlete, there's nothing bigger than playing for your country at the Olympics. The 1988 Games really left a deep impression on me. I'm glad I was able participate.
I joined the national soccer team just in time for the Olympics. Before Seoul, I thought I was a pretty good player. I had never been abroad. Our first game was against Sweden.
It was shocking. The foreign teams we competed against and watched were amazing. I realized I still had a long way to go. When we returned to China, I worked even harder. I knew what I had to do.
Abroad, China is known for its state-sponsored sports system - how has the system changed since you were young?
Things are very different. Today's kids benefit from a better environment, a better situation. Look at China's economy. When I was young and part of the system, all we did was practice. All we did was play soccer. We weren't so happy.
Today's kids are happier. The play soccer. They study. They do whatever else. Their lives have balance. On the other hand, today's kids don't know how to chiku ('eat bitter' - endure hardship). They have it easy.
So the 14-year olds you coach - they lead charmed lives?
Not exactly. They're very busy.
They wake up at 7am. By 8am they're in class. They rest after lunch. More class from 2-4pm. We have soccer practice until 6pm. They eat dinner, study 8-9:30pm and then go to sleep. That's the schedule, and it's set.
How do the kids like it?
They have really good attitudes. Some of them really like school. Some only like playing soccer. Personally, I agree with the arrangement. It's good for the kids' development. No one required me to study when I was young, and I regret it. If they do well in school, they'll be able to find a job outside of soccer.
What about the term 'Little Emperors?' Has China's 'One-Child Policy' turned out a generation of overachieving spoiled brats?
I wouldn't go that far. There are kids like this, of course. Some parents are extremely pushy. Most aren't. It's different family to family.
How do you relate to your players?
I'm their coach, first. I'm also their teacher. When they're in trouble, I help. We talk about life, about school...about many things.
How good exactly are your players?
In China, this school is tops. It's a foreign language & sports school. Many of my kids will play professionally. Some will probably join the national team. I really believe in them.
Some of my players want very badly to go pro - they're clear on this. They want to make money and become famous. Some of my players aren't so sure.
Who gets to play for you? Who gets to attend the school?
The school is selective, and expensive. There are kids who play soccer very well, but can't afford to attend the school. It just goes to show - China's sports system is imperfect. What's lacking? Government investment.
Which athlete best represents China's current sports system, and where the system is headed - Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang or NBA basketball star Yao Ming?
Yao Ming, because he plays in the United States. Young Chinese athletes should go abroad, build relationships with foreigners and observe different ways to play and train. That's how to develop China's sport system further.
What are your expectations for China's 2008 Olympic soccer squad?
I hope they succeed. They're a more balanced team than we were in 1988. But what's more important is that they work hard for China. If they show a fighting spirit - that'll be enough.
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