All that glitters is not just Olympic gold

More public recognition of athletes’ efforts instead of on the lower Rio medal total could be a good cue to end China’s culture of pursuit of success at all costs

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2016, 12:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2016, 12:37am

Host city Rio de Janeiro and China both struggled to meet high expectations during the Olympics, except on the last day, with football-mad Brazil winning the soccer competition for the first time, and China’s women’s volleyball squad restoring pride after two disappointing weeks with a surprise 3-1 victory over gold-medal favourites Serbia in the final.

Until Sunday brickbats had been in abundance among the bouquets for both nations.

For Rio, troubled by poor preparations, organisational glitches and patchy public support, football gold also restored national pride and unity. For China, whose people were non-plussed by failure to repeat past success, the volleyball win after a 12-year drought in that sport revived the ethos of a “patriotic women’s volleyball spirit” going back to the 1980s.

Well before the Games ended, the perceived under-performance of Chinese competitors attracted widespread comment. The gold medal count this century speaks for itself, beginning with 28 at Sydney in 2000, 32 at Athens in 2004, 51 at Beijing in 2008, 38 in London four years ago, but only 26 at Rio.

Echoes of China’s patriotic past in surprise volleyball win in Rio

Perhaps more surprising, the public seemed less obsessed with gold medals. This may have reflected a sense of loss of face, but it also prompted comment that the Chinese people were growing in maturity. Instead of linking Olympic gold to national pride, they have embraced a more rounded and positive perspective of the national image.

That would explain why they treasured the never-say-die spirit and teamwork of the women’s volleyball team, who bounced back to sweep the play-offs after barely scraping through to the quarter-finals. Growing prosperity plays a role in a more balanced attitude, with fewer people needing to leverage sporting ability to overcome economic obstacles to progress. As a result many athletes are not as disciplined as their predecessors who trained hard for success as a path to wealth and fame.

Hopefully, the shift in public sentiment – mirrored in online comments that convey more recognition of honest effort and less intolerance of failure – will prompt overdue reforms in the state-sponsored sports system and its rigid obsession with medal counts. More emphasis on participation and enjoyment in sport and more inclusive grooming of talent is the way forward to matching and even eclipsing past glories. This would also make a good fit with an enlightened public health regime.