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A look at Asia's people-to-people exchanges from Tokyo 2020 | Updated: 2021-09-07 20:56
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Editor's note: After the Tokyo Olympics wrapped up last month, the Paralympic Games concluded on Sept 5. In this article, Zhou Muzhi, professor at Tokyo Keizai University and head of Cloud River Urban Research Institute gives a rare glimpse of the Games from the unique perspectives of geographical features and people-to-people exchanges.

In most previous Olympics, I found myself hard to sit down and enjoy the Games due to my busy schedules. This year, with the continued spread of COVID-19 and Tokyo under strict "state of emergency," I had a rare chance of watching the Games amid the lockdowns. Here are some of my interesting takeaways from this year's event.

1. Hercules in the south

First, to my great surprise, Shen Lijun, from my ancestral home Yiyang, China's southern Hunan province, has been crowned the Olympic champion in the weightlifting men's 67kg event, bucking my stereotype that Chinese Hercules were normally born in the northeastern or northwestern part of the country. After searching the information of 18 Chinese male Olympic weightlifting champions, I found out that only two were born in China's north, with the rest all come from the south. So it is no wonder that Xiang Yu, "Hegemon-King of Western Chu" during the Chu–Han Contention period (206–202 BC) of China, was also a native southerner and was said to have the strength that can lift mountains. I feel quite proud that I also come from the south like so many Chinese Hercules.

2. Ping Pong: North dominating the sport

Another thing that surprises me is that many top Japanese Ping Pong players can speak very good Mandarin with northern accent. That's because they were trained by Chinese coaches since they were young.

Since the Seoul Games in 1988 when Ping Pong officially became an Olympic sport, China has won 32 out of the 37 gold medals, accounting for 86% of the total, representing an overwhelming dominance in the game. Geographically, the 28 gold medal winners were mostly born in the north, including 10 from the northeastern part of the country.

Retired Chinese Ping Pong players have been spotted worldwide as coaches of the foreign teams and promoters of the sport. Those Chinese coaches, either train their players in Japan or bring them back to China for intensified training, would naturally leave a northern mandarin accent on their disciples.

For example, Ai Fukuhara, a four-time Japanese Olympian in women's table tennis, had a personal coach from northeastern China and a sparring partner from the same region to practice with her. She even joined a table tennis club in northeastern Liaoning province and picked up a heavy local accent.

China's north has been holding Ping Pong's supremacy domestically, and also influenced its immediate neighbors like South Korea and Japan to be world's leaders in the sport. Olympians in Northeast Asia have dominated the event for years, with China, South Korea and Japan snatching 32, 3 and 1 gold medals respectively, accounting for 97% of the total. The dominance was only broken once by a Sweden Olympian at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The reason why the three countries in Northeast Asia could almost bag all the Olympic gold medals in Ping Pong can be attributed to their close people-to-people exchanges. Though Japan was not traditionally strong in Ping Pong, the sport is quite popular because its domestic audiences expect much from the game as it represents a platform for exchange and competition with the Chinese players. According to a recent survey in Japan, Ping Pong, instead of Judo in which the Japanese team clinched a staggering 9 gold medals, was ranked as the most thrilling event during the Tokyo 2020.

Due to various historical reasons, countries in Northeast Asia have long been locked in mistrust and opposition. However, due to a long history of exchanges, people in those countries are invariably bonded together despite historical conflicts.

3. Badminton: South holds supremacy

In contrast to Ping Pong, the sport of badminton is displaying a total different picture where the dominance is long held by China's south.

Badminton was an exhibition sport at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul before debuted as an official medal sport at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In the past nearly three decades, China has bagged 20 out of the 39 gold medals in the Olympic badminton events, accounting for 51.2% of the total.

During previous Games, a total of 22 Chinese players were crowned as badminton champions, with seven come from central China, six from eastern China, four from southern China, and one from southwestern China.

In the rest of Asia, Indonesia took eight, South Korea six, and Japan and Chinese Taipei each took one during previous Games. Therefore, Asian countries and regions have bagged up to 92% of all the gold medals in this sport, which reflected another thread in people-to-people exchanges in Asia.

Badminton's development in China cannot be possible without the contributions of several legendary Indonesian Chinese players. In 1954, four Indonesian Chinese including Wang Wenjiao returned to China and helped promote the sport in the country. In 1960, more Indonesian young players like Tang Xianhu, Hou Jiachang, Fang Kaixiang and Chen Yuniang followed suit. As professional players and later coaches, they contributed hugely to China's current standing as one of badminton's powerhouses. The southern part of China, due to its close proximity to Indonesia, has naturally become a fertile ground for the sport to take off in the country.

Throughout history, China's development has also benefited from its exchanges and interactions with neighboring countries and regions. People-to-people exchanges contributed greatly to the relations between China's north and the rest of the Northeast Asia and between China's south and the rest of the Southeast Asia, which are also mirrored in the friendly interactions among the Olympians at Tokyo 2020.

China's relations with its neighbors, sometimes being regarded as historical burdens, should be more rationally defined as a rich historical legacy, which during the times of great global changes, may help create a solid foundation for peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific region.

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