China's Olympians disappoint their government, but not the people

Official Beijing is upset by China's relatively meager medals haul in Rio. But ordinary citizens are showing more sympathy for the athletes - and less for nationalistic chest-thumping.

RUBEN SPRICH/Reuters
China's badminton mens' doubles team fell to unusual challengers Great Britain at the Rio Olympics, and failed to win even a bronze medal. August 2016

After their gold-medal-winning performance in Rio, the five male gymnasts proudly held up their nation’s flag, wide grins on their faces. 

Yet the flag they lofted was not China’s, as it had been in 2008 and 2012; it belonged to Japan – Beijing’s chief Asian rival. There could be no greater insult to Chinese patriots, adding to a long string for disappointments at this year’s Olympic Games.

Doping charges. A botched Chinese flag. Day after day when China had fewer gold medals than – can you believe it? – Great Britain.
“#TeamChina have suffered the worst Olympic flop,” state-run Xinhua Sports tweeted on Wednesday, after the Chinese male gymnastics team lost to Japan, ending up with a bronze medal.

A day earlier, Xinhua tweeted a photo of the medals table, with China third in golds, behind Great Britain. “You’re kidding me?” read the tweet, which was later deleted.

It’s hardly surprising Chinese state media would try to whip up patriotic fervor around the Olympics. In recent decades, China’s Communist government has invested large sums in its national sports teams. Like other governments worldwide, it sees the Olympics as an essential tool in building pride in the homeland and projecting strength abroad. This year, that image has taken a beating.

'So what if they can't win gold?'

Yet few ordinary Chinese citizens appear to share their rulers’ disappointment. On SinaWeibo, the main social media forum, many Chinese are expressing pride in Team China’s performance, regardless of its medal count. Some are criticizing the local media for presenting the Olympics as a competition between nations instead of what they are meant to be – a competition between the world’s greatest athletes.

“We cannot imagine the hardships they [the athletes] have suffered to get here,” said one Weibo netizen with the handle of Chitushaonvtui. “So what if they cannot win the gold medals? Should we deny their achievements just because of that?”

Some social media commentators are pushing back against such complacency. “This year, everyone says gold medals are not important, but I do care,” read one Weibo post. “Competitive sports is about fighting to win, how can you not care?”

In an editorial this week, the China Youth Daily argued that the country has outgrown the desire to be defined by Olympic performances. “China has already become a world power and does not need to prove its strength by winning gold medals,” the editorial said. 

As of Thursday, Chinese athletes had won 19 gold medals, 15 silvers, and 20 bronzes. That’s an impressive tally, but it means China is nowhere near its performance in 2008, when the Games were held in Beijing and Chinese athletes topped the board with 51 gold medals. It is also likely to end these Games with far fewer than the 38 gold medals China won in London four years ago.

China usually is a powerhouse in badminton, gymnastics, and diving. At Rio, its athletes have struggled in all of those competitions, and more.

Four years ago, Chinese swimmer Sun Yang took gold in the 1,500m and 400m freestyle events. In these Olympics, he failed to qualify in the 1,500m and came second in the 400m, bursting into tears. (He did, however, win gold in the 200m freestyle.)

The 'Beijing bounce' fades...

China sent its largest delegation ever to Rio – 416 athletes – which makes its lack of medal success especially puzzling.  Some analysts attribute it to the ups and downs of hosting the Olympics eight years ago. 

Host countries tend to pour extra resources into their teams, and that investment sometimes pays dividends at the next Olympics, as it did for China at the London Games. This year, it is Great Britain that is exceeding expectations, but the post-host bounce is fading for China. Or so the thinking goes.

China has suffered some humiliations in Rio that go beyond the medals count. In the first days of the Games, Australian swimmer Mack Horton twice called Mr. Sun a “drug cheat” – including at a post-race press conference, with Sun sitting next to him. (Sun served a three-month ban in 2014 for traces of trimetazidine, which the swimmer said he was taking for heart palpitations.)
 
China’s netizens then heaped abuse on Mr. Horton, forcing the Australian Olympic Committee to delete thousands of vile comments on his Instagram account.

Chinese state media also noticed that the organizers of the Rio Games were using an incorrect version of the Chinese national flag during ceremonies. Brazilian officials quickly apologized, and replaced the flawed flags with proper ones.

Even with such incidents, the 2016 Games have produced moments of glory for China, and not always because of individual athleticism. Chinese swimmer Fan Yuanhui took home a bronze in the 100m backstroke, swimming a personal best, but she really hit gold with the Chinese public for her post-race interviews, in which she could barely contain her exuberance. 

“I didn’t hold anything back!” Fan exclaimed in one interview, which has since gone viral. “I already used all of my mystic powers!”

Qiang Xiaoji contributed to this report. 

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