Images of Chinese athletes in Rio breaking stereotypes against Asian males

By Chen Fangjun Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/10 19:08:39

Ning Zetao, a Chinese star athlete at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, is gaining popularity among Western audiences for his achievements and attractive physique. Photo: IC

"Oh my god! This Chinese swimmer is so hot; you need to look!" texted Catreona Collier to her friends. She was gushing about Ning Zetao, a 23-year-old swimmer on the Chinese Olympic team in Rio. She saw Ning's photo on social media and instantly fell in love.

Collier, a 14-year-old high school student in Britain, spends her summer holiday exchanging information and pictures with her friends about Ning - it's an obsession.

"As teenage girls, we were very excited about Ning," said Collier. "We mostly talk about his muscles, which are so attractive."

As a fan of sports, especially swimming, Collier always watches the Olympic Games. She is not the only one attracted to Ning's dark hair, dark eyes, and enchanting physique.

Ning started to capture the eye of Western media even before he participated in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. A shining star with both talent and achievement in swimming as the first Asian man to swim 100 meters in under 48 seconds in 2015, with a hot body to boot, Ning was dubbed "China's Hottest Olympic Swimmer" by Western media days before he took his first splash in the Rio swimming pool.

Apart from Ning, other Chinese athletes are also getting attention for their extraordinary performances in their own fields. For example, world No.1 table tennis player Ma Long amazed Western Net users when he defeated Nigerian rising star Aruna Quadri within just 28 minutes on August 10. Zhang Jike, the world No.4 player in table tennis, is also on the radar of many Western sports fans.

Both the skill and sex appeal of these Chinese athletes are pushing more foreigners to root for China. They are also helping change stereotyped perceptions of Asian males.


Chinese table tennis player Zhang Jike punches the air during a table tennis match at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Brazil on August 8. Photos: CFP, IC

Overseas fans

Collier started to search for information and was surprised to discover that Ning is not only good looking but also an excellent swimmer.

"I've read a lot about Ning's success at The Incheon 2014 Asian Games in South Korea," said Collier. "He was also named China's sports personality of 2015!"

Her affection for Ning has also opened a door for her to get to know more about the Chinese team.

"I'll definitely be watching Ning compete in the 50-meter freestyle on  August 12 (Beijing time)," she said. "And I'm also excited to watch other Chinese athletes compete this year."

The Chinese table tennis team also has a huge following outside of China.

"I'm a big fan of the Chinese national team," said Tyler Vazquez, a 27-year-old journalist based in Florida in the US. Vazquez has been a table tennis fan since he started playing just over a year ago.

"I quickly became fascinated with the sport, and came to revere the skills of players like Ma Long and Zhang Jike," he said.

He loves watching their matches and is most taken by their unique signatures.

"To see Zhang out here pumping his fist and yelling 'Cho!' is so amazing to witness," said Vazquez. "He is bringing everything he has to these matches. He's an aggressive player with an attitude to match. I always think of him as the bad boy of table tennis."

Vazquez also enjoys the various personalities of the Chinese athletes. "Ma Long is very serious. [He] doesn't display as much excitement but still gets very worked up about winning. He's composed. His hair is parted neatly. He takes his craft and himself very seriously. I think he's going to win gold," he said. "I'm excited to see if they end up facing each other in the final."

Like Vazquez, many of the foreigners attracted by the skill and performance of the Chinese athletes also know a lot about them: their different styles and personalities.

"Ma Long, for me, is a genius at table tennis. He understands how it should go, whether fast or slow, crossed or parallel. He seems to have a computer in his head to analyze the matches live," said Anzony, a Spanish fan of Ma and Zhang and a forecaster who mainly focuses on table tennis.

Shattering stereotypes

Westerners online do not hide their affection for Ning, especially for his amazing physique. A Google search for him shows hundreds of thousands of results, the first few pages of which are articles and posts that talk about his amazing physique.

"Whoever told him that swimming was his sport, thank you so much," wrote a Net user named Miriam Escalada on August 5.

"I need to touch your abs," the Daily Mail wrote in its August 5 headline, quoting one of Ning's fans.

Collier has never seen an Asian athlete gain so much popularity in such a short time. Compared to other Chinese athletes participating in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Ning is the most memorable, she said.

"If someone were to ask me to name a Chinese athlete, I would only be able to name Ning," she said. "His good looks may also be a reason why he is also easily remembered."

These days, the nerdy stereotypes of Asian men are quite popular among Westerners. "People think of an Asian man who wears glasses, has a job related to tech as well as being good at math and science," Collier said.

This stereotype can be seen in many popular films and TV series like Mean Girls (2004) and Dexter (2006).

According to Collier, Ning's good looks and popularity are shattering the stereotypes and helping create a new, more up-to-date and varied impression of Asian males.

"At first, when I thought of Asian males, I would more likely think of someone like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan because they are very popular in Western culture and are well-known in films," she said.

According to Collier, these images are far removed from her generation. However, Ning is from a younger generation that appeals to Collier and her friends. He has unwittingly captured the minds and hearts of many overseas fans, and in doing so, he has changed perceptions outside China.

"Ning has definitely changed that for me! Ning is young, stylish!" said Collier. "He not only has an amazing physique but is very stylish! I find Ning just as attractive fully clothed as he is without."

Initially attracted by Ning and others like him, fans of Chinese athletes are slowly expanding their knowledge of China and Chinese culture through their idols.

"I spend a lot of time on social media and have lots of friends around the world and learn more about different cultures through [social media]," Collier explained. "Because of this, I'm very open toward other cultures and people. I think this is what makes us in the younger generation different to the older generation."

Like Collier, Fred Landis, an investigative reporter based in San Diego, California, also has confidence that star athletes like Ning can shatter stereotypes long existed in Western culture. According to him, the popularity of athletes can go beyond the limit of this deep-rooted perceptions.

"In the first place, we are not talking about just a Chinese person, but a person who is representing his country in an area which was traditionally dominated by the US. It demonstrates that person's charisma and ability can overcome existing bias," he said.

Reframing the image

The rise of star athletes like Ning coincides with the need for diversity in Western media representations, according to Mildred Lewis, a professor in the film department at Chapman University in the US.

Lewis has unique insight into Western popular culture's depiction of the Asian male.

"Asians are too often represented in severely limited and stereotypical ways," she said. "Consider the asexuality of Asian American men. Has John Cho [a supporting actor in Star Trek] ever had a plausible love interest?"

She said the popularity of athlete like Ning and Zhang can help change the mindset of Westerners toward Asian males by showing a different image, masculine and full of attraction.

According to Collier, many people from Westerners do not realize how sexy Asians can be, or avoid talking about it. "It is time to change," she said.

Newspaper headline: The power of popularity

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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