Editorial: Focused to a serious fault

Back in 1990 the nation's heart went out to Millie Khan.

The much-loved New Zealand bowls representative took to the medal podium of the Auckland Commonwealth Games to receive her singles silver medal, heartbroken.

Minutes earlier she had been told her baby grandson, Brad, was dead. He had died earlier that day, outside the venue, soon after the family had arrived to watch her in the final.

The news had been kept from her for several hours.

Most people, not all, accepted the thinking that the hurt could wait for just a few hours, rather than springing it on her in time for it to so totally overshadow the competition for which she had trained so long, representing the country that meant so much to her.

Nobody was really saying, or believing, that the competition mattered more than family. Just that the delay might prevent a lesser regret being heaped atop a greater grief.

And yet there was unease amid the sorrow and sympathy that people felt. A sense that this was a line very easy to cross.

We cannot pretend to know, in all circumstances, where that line lies. It's pretty clear, though, that the case of Chinese diver Wi Minxia falls way, way the wrong side of it.

Only after she had claimed her gold medal at the London Olympics did she learn that her grandmother had died more than a year earlier, and that her mother had been battling breast cancer for many years.

These, apparently, were "distractions" that the family sought to spare her.

For so long.

In parts of China this will be seen as supportive, wise, and compassionate on behalf of the parents. Societies such as ours, however, will be disinclined to that view.

For so much of the watching world, Wu's sporting achievement will be entirely overshadowed by the palpable unhealthiness, if not immorality, of such a tunnel-visioned pursuit of sporting success.

Then again, you can see it as, if not a virtue, then at least a compensation of the Olympic Games, that it occasionally provides cautionary tales that are every bit as useful as inspirational ones.

There's some encouragement to be taken, too, from the reports that the news has caused controversy within China. The significance of the backlash against win-at-all-costs thinking can be hard to measure because in such a giant country it is not easy to know how large a body of opinion the "thousands" of complaining web users really represents.

At least one of them put it just about perfectly: "Apart from making people crazy, our Olympic strategy also makes people lose their humanity."

That is a concern. China is naturally an Olympic powerhouse and with that population it can also be expected to throw up what might kindly be called exceptional, or unkindly, freakish, talents, even by Olympian standards.

The suspicion of illicit tactics such as drug abuse does come up, as it does in many countries. At such times we can only hope that the vigilance of the anti-doping regime will be up to it.

But on a far, far more straightforward level, we are entitled to consider the sad case of Wu Minxia and wonder whether the fact that she went a year without having any contact with her grandmother isn't a separate little tragedy, of sorts, all by itself.

The Southland Times