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Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Olympic cheering program hopes to stamp out bad sportsmanship

Associated Press

BEIJING -- The drills are about to begin. With his right hand, Zhang Ran hoists a yellow flag above his head, much like a sailor directing traffic on an aircraft carrier.

He's facing 150 sales clerks sitting in tidy rows, hand-picked by their labor union to learn the approved cheers and chants for next year's Beijing Olympics. It's all good-humored without the slightest whiff of swearing or boorish behavior.

Nobody doubts that TV-friendly venues will glitter when the Olympics open in eight months. It's other matters that cause worry -- people's manners, their knowledge of many unfamiliar sports and the government's promise to allow more than 20,000 reporters unfettered access.

Civilization equals order. We need to express the same slogans, think the same and behave the same way. That's how we become civilized.

--Zhang Ran

Zhao Xi, a 24-year-old Communist Youth League member, works in a nearby shopping mall, a five-minute drive from Tiananmen Square. Zhao is using an off day to work on the cheers.

"We want to do this because we are making contributions to the Olympics," Zhao said. "It's an honor."

Zhang's left hand snaps another flag and cheers erupt with military precision.

"Zhongguo, Zhongguo -- ha, ha, ha. Zhongguo, Zhongguo bi sheng," the crowd shouts, simultaneously beating yellow, stick-shaped batons to the rhythm. "Jia you, jia you." Rough translation: "China, China -- ha, ha, ha. China, China must win. Let's go, let's go."

One of about 20 cheers approved by authorities, it's drilled a half-dozen times, orderly repetitions practiced in a meeting hall darkened by stained gray carpet squares and wood paneling. Thirty red and yellow paper lanterns dangle overhead, casting faint light on government slogans papering the walls.

Welcome to the "Beijing Civilized Workers Cheering Squad," a public-education program to teach sportsmanship, all part of a larger Olympic etiquette campaign to show off a polite, prosperous and powerful China.

"Civilization equals order," Zhang said. "We need to express the same slogans, think the same and behave the same way. That's how we become civilized."

Chinese are ecstatic about the Olympics. And though the cheering lessons are highly programed, 48-year-old Liu Aimin -- balding and a generation older than almost everyone else -- springs with gusto from his chair to practice the wave.

"The younger people make me feel so much younger," said Liu who, like most attending, has no guarantee of getting any of the 7 million tickets available for Olympic events.

In a 2 1/2-hour session, Zhang also leads a cheer in basic English: "Come on, come on -- go, go." His pupils wave yellow scarves this time, and everybody wears multicolored vests carrying this slogan in Chinese on the back: "I participate, I'm healthy, I'm happy."

"There will be foreigners attending, so we have to take this into account," says Zhang, who shared the teaching duties with Zhai Yue, deputy editor of Sports Vision, a magazine published by the Beijing Sports Bureau, the government's top sports body in the capital.

Hunched behind an office desk draped with a white sheet, Zhai lectured on China's Olympic history, which dates from 1894 when founder Pierre de Coubertin sent an invitation to the Qing Dynasty to compete. Unfamiliar with the sports, the government reportedly didn't reply.

He asks simple questions, rewarding correct answers with a thick handbook of Olympic sports and etiquette. For laughs, he shows a video in which a zealous cartoon character roams a stadium and berates fans for smoking, littering and swearing. And he repeats four major points: don't insult former wartime enemy Japan; don't swear; respect the referee; and don't snap indiscriminate photos.

Specks of nationalism also creep in, calling 1984 "the year the humiliation ended" and China won its first Olympic gold medal. This time, China is expected to challenge the United States for the most gold medals.

"Many Chinese don't understand why they can't take photos when athletes are about to serve or hit the ball; they think it's the best moment to take the shot," Zhai said. "The most basic and most important thing we teach the fans is about when to cheer, when to snap photos and when to clap."

China has a tradition of hospitality, but some manners can seem rough by foreign standards. Historians say that's partly a fallout from the Cultural Revolution, when old-line values were discouraged.

Broad-reaching campaigns are under way to remedy littering, swearing, spitting and dirty taxis. Everyone is being encouraged to speak some English. The 11th of each month is "queuing day" when residents are forced to stand in line to catch public transportation.

"When Chinese invite you to the house, they'll clean the house first," said Dr. Luo Qing, who researches China's national image at Communication University of China in Beijing. "No matter how poor, guests will be treated with all the best stuff. We're definitely sweeping the house before the Olympics."

"We care very much about how foreigners think about this nation," she added. "We feel we have a responsibility to show this nation is rising again."

The state-run China Daily newspaper regularly rails against careless driving, and harps about English misspellings like this on a restaurant menu: "Hot Crap," instead of "Hot Carp."

"After the 2008 Olympics, will there be fewer people spitting or jumping ahead in line?" Zhai asks rhetorically. "Will more people respect women and children? I don't know."

China's authoritarian government fears any glitches, which could happen with fans attending unfamiliar sports like baseball, sailing or field hockey, which are as foreign in China as a bullfight in Belgium.

Cheering at the wrong moment, taking photos when they're prohibited or cell phones going off as swimmers teeter on the starting blocks are potential snags that could draw negative coverage.

At a field hockey test event this summer between Argentina and Australia, hundreds of middle-age women were bused in to add atmosphere -- the kind of instant numbers only China can muster. The women tried to imitate cheers in Spanish, but got it wrong.

"Ba mao si fen han de di le," they chanted, which in Chinese could roughly mean: "Eighty-four cents, you've offered a price too low." Nobody could figure out what this had to do with field hockey.

Golf isn't an Olympic event, but players often complain that Chinese fans breach the game's etiquette.

"The good thing is we do have a lot of fans following us," Chinese veteran golfer Zhang Lianwei said at a recent tournament. "The bad thing is they are so excited and yell at all times."

American player Boo Weekley was more blunt: "They don't quite understand the game, I don't think."

Chen Xiaohai, a 25-year-old accountant, acknowledged she wasn't familiar with all Olympic sports. She thought snooker was in the Olympics and confessed to being stumped about the equestrian events.

If there's trouble, it could come in soccer -- or any team event in which Japan participates. Scuffles with police and general chaos erupted in Beijing in 2004 after Japan defeated China to win Asia's national soccer title. Japan's women's soccer team was peppered with insults three months ago at the women's World Cup in China, and fans jeered Japan's national anthem.

Shouting obscenities at opposing players is common in Chinese soccer, which has been plagued with match-fixing scandals and on-field fighting. Beijing's top club team, Guo'an, plays at the Feng Tai stadium, which is draped with huge signs urging good behavior. Dozens of closed circuit cameras have been added in the last few years, and the police presence has increased several fold.

"Be civilized when you watch the match. Don't get angry about the results," one banner reads. Another banner in Chinese was recently removed. It read: "Welcome to Hell."

Dozens of closed-circuit cameras will dot each Olympic venue, many looking down on the crowd from the ceiling. Organizers say they may dress police and soldiers in volunteer uniforms to help ensure order.

"We are not going to shout profanities in front of foreigners because the Olympics is a show for foreigners," said Lui Wei, a 21-year-old spectator attending a recent Guo'an game.

"The government has told us it's not polite," Lui said. "The government wants to show a good image of the country."