Friday, 11 May 2012

Olympics Stars #3 - Qiu Bo

By Shane Thomas

The sport of diving has become one that has found increasing popularity in recent years in Britain, primarily due to Tom Daley. Daley went to the Beijing Olympics as a highly rated 13 year old, and while he underperformed in China, it was said that the experience of an Olympic Games would stand him in good stead for the London Olympics four years hence. However, it's not Daley that we should be focusing on when the television cameras move to the Aquatic Centre, as China have a diving wunderkind of their own; Qui Bo.

While the 2008 Olympics were a learning experience for Daley, he went to the World Junior Championships later in the year, quoted as saying he was there to "kick arse". However, he clearly hadn't planned for the presence of Bo. They pushed each other to the limit in a high class competition, with Bo narrowly beating Daley to the gold medal.

The following year, the two did battle again on the 10 metre board. This time it was Daley who came out on top, relegating Bo into the silver medal position. This - to date - was the first, and only time that Daley has bested a man that his coach, Andy Banks has dubbed as, "Tom's nemesis."

Since then, Bo has cut a swathe through the diving world, with 2011 his most successful year yet. At the FINA Diving World Series, he achieved a mammoth points total of 609.20, after begin awarded 25 perfect 10's from the judges - something that has never been done before.

Later in the year, he went on the star in that year's World Championships, taking gold medals in both the 10m solo and 10m synchronised events. He ended the year being awarded the prize for FINA's Male Diver of the Year. It's not just Daley that has been left in the shadow cast by Bo, but all of their contemporaries.

Many have used Bo as a stick to beat the Chinese sporting system with, and there's no doubt that Bo, as well as many of the Chinese athletes we'll see in London this summer, have advantages that their rivals don't. Their state-funded system allows them to focus fully on their training. Like the stars of the Premier League or the NFL, the Chinese athletes function as full-time professionals.

But to denounce Bo solely as a tool of nationalism, a Diving version of "Ivan Drago" (watch Rocky IV if you don't understand the reference) is to do Bo a disservice. Regardless of the country he's born in, he is a once in a generation superstar.

In some respects, there is something of the ruthless machine about him. Ask diving experts about his weaknesses, and they give little more than a wry shrug, knowing that there's little one can do to beat him. Understandably for one so young (he's still only 19), he's not one for publicity, but the tidbits he has dispensed in interviews indicates that he has a fully-focused head on those young shoulders. He thinks little of the threat from his rivals, stating that the challenge is to surpass his own high standards. Personally I think the only way that Bo will return to Beijing sans a gold medal, will be down to him choking under pressure, which is an extremely unlikely scenario.

The British press reaction to the Bo vs Daley battle could be one of the most intriguing parts of the Olympics. Will they paint Bo with the brush of jingoistic xenophobia, depicting him as a microcosm of the Chinese psyche? Will they turn on Daley if he fails to win gold this summer? Will the fans in the Aquatic Centre subject Bo to a chorus of boos as he readies himself before his dives?

I dearly hope that we see none of those things in a few months time. Those who are lucky enough to be in the crowd to see Bo should realise just how fortunate they are. Supporting the hometown boy/girl is all well and good, but we should never forget that the Olympics is ostensibly the greatest exhibition of sporting prowess on the planet. And that should always supersede nationalistic pride.

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