Rio Olympics spark outrage, joy and anxiety in China

Chinese media have pointed out the contrast between Rio and the Beijing games in 2008


The Olympic Games in Rio have proven an emotional rollercoaster ride in China, whisking national feeling from public outrage at Australian swimmer Mack Horton for calling Chinese rival Sun Yang a “drug cheat” to paranoia over refereeing decisions and the use of an incorrect national flag, before lurching to widespread joy at the achievements and modesty of some of its athletes.

The latest gut-wrenching turn came after the country’s first positive doping test result at the games. Rising swimming star Chen Xinyi tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic which can be used to mask other performance enhancing drugs, in a test on August 7th.

“If this is confirmed, it will be the biggest scandal for the Chinese Olympic delegation since it started participating during the 1984 LA Olympics,” ran a story in the Beijing Morning Post.

Chinese swimming was dogged by doping scandals for much of the 1980s and 1990s and there were fears that the 18-year-old Chen’s positive test could mark a return to the bad old days.

After staging a successful games in Beijing in 2008, in which it won 51 gold medals, and having been chosen to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, China attaches more importance than most to the world’s biggest athletic showcase, and is keenly sensitive to the political sensitivities surrounding the events.

Swimmer Fu Yuanhui became an online sensation after her bewilderment and cute facial expressions at the news that she had won the bronze medal in the women’s 100-metre backstroke at the Olympic Aquatics Centre in Barra.

During an interview with state broadcaster CCTV, it became clear that Fu did not know she had come joint-third, and she exclaimed, “Wow, I can swim so fast!”, an expression that has gone viral, earning her 1.4 million followers on her Weibo account within 24 hours.

Days later she broke a long-standing taboo in China when she said on television that the reason for her disappointing performance in the women’s 4 x 100-metre medley relay was that she swam while having her period.

Warmly applauded

The positive response is part of a less rigid approach to the games and points to a younger generation able to simply enjoy the event and the personalities of the athletes, rather than simply focusing on gold medal tallies.

“There seems to be a big change in people’s attitude to athletes winning gold medals,” ran a commentary on the Sohu website. “People no longer simply prioritise winning gold medals but can still cherish sports in general.”

Shooters Du Li and Yi Siling were warmly applauded for their achievements despite not winning gold and on the Weibo social network a commentator wrote: “Du Li, it is already incredible for you to be there in Rio no matter what the results are, I hope you enjoy the night and have fun.”

Another writing as “Name changing no more” wrote: “No pressure, I will cheer for you if you win and love you still even you don’t win the race.”

However, the joy was tempered by the sight of poorly-aligned Chinese flags behind the winner’s podium, with the smaller stars surrounding the big star in the top left hand corner not positioned correctly, undermining the symbolic arrangement that shows the Communist Party’s central position in Chinese society.

Irish boxing fans who feel that Ireland’s Joe Ward was harshly treated by a Chinese referee in his split decision loss to Ecuador’s Carlos Andres Mina will see a certain irony in the way China’s Lu Bin started to celebrate a victory after a match against Kenya’s Peter Mungai Warui before the decision went against him.

Lu went on Weibo to say “the judge has stolen my dream” and thousands of supporters rushed to back him, including the state broadcaster CCTV, which ran a piece suggesting the decision was unfair.

After Mack Horton, who pipped Sun Yang by 0.16 seconds to win the 400-metre freestyle gold medal, hailed his victory as one “for the good guys” and called Sun a “drug cheat” because he had served a secret three-month ban after testing positive for a banned substance, the Global Times newspaper took aim at the “smug Aussie swimmer” and Australia generally, describing it as a “second-class citizen” in the West.

“Australia used to be a land populated by the UK’s unwanted criminals, and this remains a stigma attached to Australian culture,” said the state-backed media outlet known for its strident nationalist tone.

The outraged reaction chimes with government anger at a decision last month by a Hague tribunal condemning China’s expansionary tactics in the South China Sea.

Since then, China has felt under attack internationally, and blames the US for much of this. That the Rio Olympics are dominated thus far by American athletes, and that China’s ally Russia has come under particular attack over doping, has not helped. Beijing sees attitudes to doping shaping up along Cold War lines and doesn’t like it.


Relations between China and Australia came under further strain after Canberra blocked China’s State Grid Corp and Hong Kong’s Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings from buying a controlling stake in Ausgrid, the country’s largest electricity distribution network, saying it was not in the national interest.

This comes after the British government has delayed approval for the Hinkley Point nuclear power project, in which China’s General Nuclear Power Corporation was set to have a stake, citing similar security concerns.

With swimming pools turning green for no reason and some bizarre organisational decisions, as well as crime-related incidents, Chinese media have pointed out the contrast between Rio and the Beijing games in 2008.

Even before the Olympics began there was controversy, when Chinese hurdler Shi Dongpeng was vomited on in Rio by a thief pretending to be drunk, and then a journalist travelling with him was robbed of his camera equipment by an accomplice, in an elaborate hoax after they had arrived at their hotel.

In another incident, a delegation of Chinese journalists witnessed a gunfight in front of their hotel in which six people were killed, while a group of Chinese visitors were robbed in downtown Rio. Thieves attempted to rob the Chinese women’s fencing team of their valuables at Copacabana.

In all, there are 711 Chinese athletes and officials in Brazil for the games, the biggest representation since Beijing hosted the event eight years ago, and 3,000 tourists are in town to watch the event.

But the overall message in Chinese media remains that Rio should be embraced despite the controversy.

“The Rio Olympics are not luxurious, it’s chaotic, the pollution is a problem, the security is disorganised, which is not pretty at all, with people in Rio getting robbed, with the wrong Chinese flag used during awards, ping pong players forced to clean their own toilets, all in all it’s not romantic at all,” ran a report on 163. com.

“But it doesn’t make sense to demonise the Rio Olympics either,” it said. “There is an enthusiasm and a fresh feeling that China should also cherish.”

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