China's Olympic stakes go beyond its medal count

Frank Ching says despite China's success in the Olympic medal standings, wider acceptance as an equal won't come overnight

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 2:04am

Inevitably, the London Olympics, in particular the opening and closing ceremonies, are being compared to the Games staged in Beijing four years ago, when China dazzled the world.

The Beijing Olympics were seen as China's coming-out party, and the government went all out. For the first time, China won more gold medals than any other country, though the US had a bigger haul of medals overall. Beijing presented an opening ceremony of epic proportions, with more than 15,000 performers and costing over US$100million.

The British decided to try a different tack entirely. Instead of the solemnity of the Chinese performance, they opted for humour. The 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth evidently relished her cameo role in a James Bond sequence which culminated in the queen apparently jumping out of a helicopter and parachuting into the Olympic stadium.

Such a performance cannot be imagined in China, where presidents are expected to act, well, presidential, and where comedians are strongly discouraged from poking fun at the leadership. In fact, to maintain their dignified appearance, Chinese leaders dye their hair black while in office. Once they retire, their hair turns white.

The theme of freedom and individual spirit in London was striking, especially when contrasted with Beijing's controlled attempt to depict a perfect China through lip-synching.

The Chinese state-run sports machinery was cranked up to rake in gold medals. The tremendous pressure on the athletes was reflected by weightlifter Wu Jingbiao who, after winning the silver medal, tearfully begged forgiveness "for disgracing the motherland".

Overall, the Chinese did well, winning 88 medals, 38 of them gold. But the US outperformed China in all categories of medals - gold, silver and bronze - for a total of 104.

Just as the 2008 Olympics put China well and truly on the world stage, so the Games this year put Britain back on the map, with the country coming third and with a pronounced boost to British national pride.

The Olympics proved to be an opportunity for the host country to show the rest of the world not just how good a show it could put on but how well its athletes could perform. Brazil is next.

China, with memories of its humiliation at Western hands, still wants to prove it is no longer the "sick man of Asia" and, in fact, is better than other countries, or at least just as good.

An op-ed columnist writing in the online People's Daily said: "A thousand years ago, China looked down on the rest of the world. A hundred years ago, China worshipped foreigners. Today, China sees itself as the equal of other countries."

This process is likely to take time. China still sees signs of prejudice, such as the widespread suggestions of doping when 16-year-old female swimmer Ye Shiwen won a gold medal.

Hopefully, the London Olympics, like the Games held in Beijing, will help to bring about a perception of greater equality between China and other countries.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1