Scrambling to explain China's fall

China's You Hao falling in the parallel bars final to finish last. Two gymnastics bronzes from the men's and women's team events are all they had to show for their exploits in Rio.
China's You Hao falling in the parallel bars final to finish last. Two gymnastics bronzes from the men's and women's team events are all they had to show for their exploits in Rio.PHOTO: REUTERS

Media says country no longer obsessed with winning gold, even as some reel over Rio flop

RIO DE JANEIRO • China's Olympic team have significantly underperformed at the Rio Games, slipping behind Britain into third place with just 19 golds at the start of Day 12. It is shaping up to be China's worst Olympic performance since 1996.

State media, which began the Games in a buoyant mood, has spent the last week desperately downgrading expectations.

The Global Times reported on Tuesday that the Chinese public is "unfazed by sluggish medal winning" in Rio, and that Chinese athletes had been "relieved of unfair expectations" because the nation no longer had so much to prove.

Even so, the rumbles of discontent that have been emanating from China after a series of flops have developed into a fully fledged outburst of public anguish.

A tweet from the state-owned news agency, Xinhua, spoke volumes after Britain - also with 19 golds but more silvers - overtook the Chinese to go second in the medal table: "You kidding me? The country which has never finished above China is about to ..."

That tweet was swiftly deleted, but it reflected perhaps the uncertainty over quite how China should react.

One of those British athletes who left the Chinese in their wake was Jack Laugher, who with Chris Mears became Britain's first Olympic diving champions in the synchronised 3m springboard, while world champions Cao Yuan and Qin Kai had the ignominy of settling for bronze behind Americans Sam Dorman and Mike Hixon.

FOCUS ON MASS PARTICIPATION

The government does not have such an obsession with gold medals and now wants more people involved in sport.

CAO JIANJIE, director of Xinhua news agency's Olympic operation in Rio.

Laugher believes that the rest of the world is catching up with China in diving, rather than standards dropping among the Chinese.

"It's not just Britain - Russia, the US and Mexico are getting there too," the 21-year-old said. "It almost feels that the whole world is against China in diving because everyone, even from a different country, is happy when you beat them.

"That's nothing against the Chinese, they are really nice guys. It's just that they are the ones to beat."

While China could yet overtake Britain in the medal standings, it will probably fall short of its projected 30 to 35 golds, even though it sent 416 athletes to Rio - its largest-ever overseas delegation.

Nevertheless something is changing in China, and the obsession with gold may have dwindled.

The Global Times said that is because the nation no longer needs to work so hard to get rid of the "humiliating label of the 'sick man' of Asia". Not only has China already proved it can achieve sporting success, but it has also more than proven itself as a global diplomatic and economic power.

Nevertheless, in certain sports in which China once viewed itself pre-eminent, it was given a rude awakening.

After it failed to win a single gymnastics gold, the sport on which the country has always prided itself on being a powerhouse, Xinhua tweeted: "No gold for #CHN gymnasts #TeamChina have suffered the worst Olympic flop at #Rio2016".

Cao Jianjie, the director of Xinhua's Olympic operation in Rio de Janeiro, said that other sports where China has traditionally done well have also failed to meet expectations, including badminton, shooting and weightlifting.

Instead, and in something of a reflection of the competing interests in British sport, the focus has switched to encouraging mass participation in sport in China.

"It used to be called the Olympic Glory programme, but not any longer," Cao said. "We have expected this before we came to Rio because the government does not have such an obsession with gold medals and now wants more people involved in sport."

Values are also changing. The younger generation has embraced Fu Yuanhui, a quirky and disarmingly modest swimmer who won many hearts despite winning only a bronze medal. Another swimmer, Ning Zetao remains one of China's top heart-throbs, despite failing to reach a final. Chinese sports fans nowadays are more inclined to celebrate human beings than sporting automatons.

"Unlike their predecessors at past Olympics, less-than-perfect Chinese athletes at the Rio Games are neither shedding tears nor apologising for letting the country down," wrote Hu Shuli, the influential editor-in-chief of Caixin Media.

"It's a whole new ball game: China has replaced a form of gold-medal worship with true appreciation for athletic endeavours and achievement."

WASHINGTON POST, THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2016, with the headline 'Scrambling to explain China's fall'. Print Edition | Subscribe