APARISIM GHOSHAsian sports fans can be very bad sports. After their football team lost to the United States in the final of the Women's World Cup, Chinese newspapers promptly (and predictably) accused the Americans of cheating. They blamed the organizers for putting the Chinese squad through the most punishing travel schedule of the Cup--and for deliberately lodging the team in a hotel called Ambassador, to remind the poor girls of NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. More credibly, Chinese papers accused the U.S. goalkeeper, Briana Scurry, of committing an offense during the game's climactic penalty shootout: TV replays suggested she stepped forward as Liu Ying kicked the ball. With that apparent edge, she made the save. Though technically an infringement, it's commonplace in competitive football. Goalies step forward almost instinctively, and referees routinely look the other way because the advantage derived is, at best, marginal. But Scurry might just as well have kicked Liu in the groin, so outraged were Chinese commentators.
Their rage stems from the misplaced belief--all too common in Asia--that defeat in the sporting arena is tantamount to a national disgrace. This explains why cricket fans in Pakistan burned effigies of their players after they lost last month's World Cup final in London. Angry mobs stoned the home of a star batsman, and the mother of team captain Wasim Akram was forced to appeal for forgiveness on behalf of her son. In India, fans have been known to rain stones and bottles onto the field when it becomes clear that the home side is heading toward defeat. Even governments can be downright mean-spirited toward fallen sporting heroes. When the Sri Lankan cricket team returned from this year's World Cup in defeat, the government ordered a probe into the income-tax records of some players. Pakistani Prime Minister Mohammed Nawaz Sharif, meanwhile, ordered his
Accountability Commission--set up to root out graft in government--to investigate charges of late-night revelry by the country's team members during the competition. Had the Sri Lankans or Pakistanis won the Cup, you can be sure the players would have been forgiven any and all misdemeanors.
Why are Asian sporting idols so mistreated? Perhaps because they are still a relative novelty--we're not used to having them, so we haven't yet learned how to treat them. Most Westerners can name sporting heroes from the early decades of the century: Babe Ruth, W.G. Grace and Sonja Henie were household names in America, Britain and
Norway in the 1920s. Asian heroes, on the other hand, are of much more recent vintage. (Japan, as always, is the exception: it has a longer record of world-class sporting achievement, which is why fans there are better able to take defeat in their stride.)
It all comes down to economics, of course. After achieving independence from colonial masters in the mid-century, many Asian countries were too absorbed in the feeding, clothing and education of their people to bother with frivolous matters like sports. Widespread illiteracy and the absence of television meant that Asian sporting feats went largely unnoticed. It wasn't until the 1970s that sports became a fixture in the general consciousness. And even then, Asians had few expectations of their sportsmen and women: as novices to international competition, they were routinely overawed by the occasion and performed under par. It was easy to explain away defeat when most countries in the region didn't have world-class sporting infrastructure and athletes were mainly amateurs. Fans were forgiving.
All that changed in the 1980s, when Asians began to win on a regular basis. China and Japan reaped sizable medal hauls at the Olympics, Indonesia grew dominant in badminton, India and Pakistan emerged as world-beaters in cricket. This coincided with the emergence of the Asian economic tigers and the accompanying boost in Asian pride. Sporting victories became extensions of national self-assertiveness. Public expectations soared. Until underdogs Sri Lanka won the 1995 cricket Cup, fans were happy if their team won even one game in the tournament. Now, nothing less than world domination will suffice.
It may take some time before Asia's fans get used to the idea that even the greatest athletes occasionally lose--and that a defeat on the playing field is just that and nothing more. On the other hand, the region's athletes could provide some lessons to their Western counterparts. Even as their fans whine, Asian players tend to be models of grace--in victory and defeat. Indian and Pakistani cricketers know not to get carried away by the overblown passions of their fans or the history of ill-will between their countries. Unlike their finger-pointing newspapers, China's female footballers had only congratulations for the victorious Americans. In the West, it's the fans who are gracious and the players spoiled. Asked about her penalty violation, Briana Scurry responded: It's only cheating if you get caught. If there's anything worse than a sore loser, it's a poor winner.