The People’s Daily has started a heated debate about whether Chinese athletes represent the nation after criticising tennis player Li Na and world-record-holding swimmer Sun Yang for being “overly prima donna-ish”.
“Who can restrain this terrible capriciousness?”, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party wrote on Monday .
Sun was criticised by the paper for falling out with his long-time coach Zhu Zhigen , casting doubt over his participation at the World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona in July, while Li has provoked ire amongst Chinese sports pundits and nationalists after frequent remarks that she owes her success to her own efforts.
“These accomplishments are not a sufficient excuse for these two iconic Chinese athletes to turn their personality into capriciousness,” the People’s Daily wrote, calling for a “bottom line” to their erratic behaviour.
Since then, the question has snowballed online into a debate that dominated Chinese microblogs on Wednesday.
“I think that whether Li Na wins or not is her private matter, at most it’s a sports issue,” Yuan Yulai, a prominent Ningbo-based human rights lawyer, wrote in a microblog post .
The role of athletes has changed in China, argued the Guangdong-based Southern Metropolis Daily criticising the People’s Daily in an editorial. They “should not be burdened by expectations by ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’,” it wrote.
Others also waded in. “Why do the media and a part of the public still stick to holding up the “national” flag,” when debating sports, the liberal Yunnan Information Daily  asked in an editorial.
Wuhan-born Li Na, 31, ranks 6th in the Women’s Tennis Association’s global ranking and was the first Asian Grand Slam singles champion.
She has represented China at three Olympic Games and according to the WTA's ranking is only one of three Chinese players among the 100 best players in the world.
“I am just an athlete,” she told Xinhua news agency last week. “Why should I be burdened by the nation?”
Last month, an unnamed Chinese Tennis Association official told the Hubei-based Changjiang Daily  that the “the nation has invested more than 10 million yuan into her training.” Without state support, the official argued, her success simply wouldn’t have happened.
Zhejiang-born swimmer Sun Yang, 21, is currently training in his home province, while his team is preparing for the World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona next month. The rising star had a fallout with his coach sometime earlier this year after he started dating a flight attendant.
Last month, he was temporarily stripped of his training allowance and barred from sponsored appearances after he requested a new coach.
Since President Xi Jinping, known to be an ardent sports fan, assumed the leadership of the party last autumn and the state in spring, the People’s Daily has become more outspoken about the perceived shortcomings of Chinese athletes.
“The People’s Daily should watch out, there is a bottom line to spreading nonsense,” one netizen commented on Sina Weibo, paraphrasing the paper’s headline.