Listen to this article
Light flyweight boxing
For Zou Shiming, the trim boxer with a wispy mullet and a quick wit, 2008 has come to define his life. “It’s my lucky number,” he explains, referring to the year in which he won China’s first Olympic boxing gold– as well as to the last four digits of his cellphone and licence plate.
It was a landmark year for many, even those far away from the Olympic podium. Beijing seized on the Games as a chance to present the new face of a modern China, and the world snapped to attention, with dozens of world leaders including the US president attending the elaborate opening ceremonies in the Bird’s Nest.
For Zou, a light flyweight boxer known for his quick step, the things he remembers are more mundane: how he couldn’t sleep the night before his final match as his mind raced through boxing scenarios. How the TV stations that morning kept saying China’s gold medal count stood at 49, and that maybe Zou would win number 50. How he took a nap after breakfast.
And how utterly disoriented he felt when he won. “When the result was announced I just didn’t expect it to be settled in that way,” he says. His opponent, a tough Mongolian named Purevdorjiin Serdamba, injured his shoulder and withdrew from the second round of their match, handing Zou the gold. “I had always thought that the final rounds would be close and the fight would be intense. Then all of a sudden I was an Olympic champion,” he recalls. “In interviews after the match I was sputtering and could hardly tell which way was up.”
Zou had been training for that match for most of his life. Born in the southern province of Guizhou in 1981, Zou grew up just as China was beginning its market reforms, a process that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and set the country on course to become the world’s second-largest economy.
In elementary school, Zou was - by his own admission - a trouble-maker, so his parents transferred him to a sports school. He studied martial arts but grew restless at the “constrained” discipline. “That’s just not my style,” he says. He soon discovered boxing, but tried to hide it from his parents because they considered it too violent. Steadily he developed his sparring skills under the tutelage of a coach who dubbed young Zou the “pirate” because of his ability to steal a jab at an opponent.
In 2004, Zou took the bronze in Athens, marking China’s first Olympic boxing medal. Four years later, he was back on the podium leading the boxing team to two golds, a silver and a bronze. Chinese athletes cleaned up that year, taking home more golds than any other country and winning 100 medals overall. The nation’s increased focus on sports where the chances of taking gold would be higher, such as women’s weightlifting, had paid off.
The sport of boxing, which Mao Zedong once banned for being too western, had never been one at which Chinese athletes excelled - until Zou came along. “I was lucky to compete in my home country and win a gold medal,” Zou says simply. “The Olympic Games mark how a country or a city developed.”
This summer, he’ll be training hard for London. But it won’t be anything like 2008. “It will be my third Olympics already. I’ve already lost, and I’ve already won. This time around it’s more about exhibiting myself and encouraging young athletes,” he explains. “For me, [winning the gold] was like taking all the pressure off.”
Additional reporting by Gwen Chen in Beijing