Does China’s worst Olympic Games medal haul since 2000 point to a change in the country’s attitude towards sport?

China have so far claimed 19 gold medals in Rio de Janeiro, with the possibility of a few more, but are certain to fall short of expectations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 6:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 10:55pm

The good news for China is that this won’t be their worst Olympics in a generation. It’s a close-run thing, though.

China’s gold in the table tennis women’s team final on Tuesday ensured they equalled their total of 16 from 1996 and 1992, while another one in diving from Cao Yuan took them to 17. On Wednesday, they got up to 19 with the men’s table tennis team’s victory and men’s taekwondo gold.

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With a few more possible in usual suspects badminton and diving, plus maybe boxing, race walking and even volleyball, the total seems set to creep into the 20s, but almost certainly won’t overtake 2000’s 28, the next lowest.

For a country that was second in 2012 and 2004, and top at home in 2008, it seems like a loss of face.

On Tuesday, the gymnastics came to a close, leaving China without a gold for the first time since they started competing in 1984.

And their badminton women’s doubles and mixed doubles pairs are going home without a gold, the former for the first time since the event was introduced in 1992.

Mixed doubles was added in 1996, and China had taken three of the five golds on offer before 2016. They could still possibly finish without a badminton gold, which has only happened in 1992.

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China have been almost totally dominant in diving in recent Games and have been again in Rio, but failed again to get the coveted clean sweep.

Of their other “main” sports, shooting and weightlifting, China have taken one gold out of 15 in the former, five from 15 in the latter.

A sport in which they’ve had more recent success, swimming, was also a disappointment, with Sun Yang grabbing only one gold and Ye Shiwen completely flopping.

Ignominy of ignominies, puny Great Britain have been lording it above them in second place on the medal table in recent days, though China pulled level on Wednesday and they will probably be overhauled come the end of the week.

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“You’re kidding me? The country which has never finished above China is about to,” Xinhua’s odd new Sports account tweeted the other day, before deleting it.

China sent their largest ever delegation to a foreign Games, 416 athletes. Media forecast, or rather, demanded 30-36 medals beforehand. The “experts” at Goldman Sachs said 36.

The country’s sport chiefs seemed to be rather more circumspect though, almost suggesting beforehand that it would be the taking part that counted and not the medal tally.

Those were unprecedented comments for a country that has seen a hoard of Olympic gold as essential to projecting strength and power abroad.

The troubling situation has not gone unnoticed in the mainland, of course.

Nationalist tabloid The Global Times, often critical to the point of open mockery of Great Britain, insisted in an article on Wednesday: “Chinese public unfazed by sluggish medal winning at Rio Games”.

They said it was “probably the most relaxed Games ever for China. Chinese audiences are decreasingly seeing medals as the paramount goal, and underperforming athletes are calmer when they end up with unsatisfying results”.

Nothing to see here then, though given the large number of Chinese athletes who’ve collapsed in floods of tears after failing to win gold, at least part of that argument seems dubious.

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The paper hailed Fu Yuanhui, China’s new internet darling who only won a bronze in the pool, as a shining example of the public’s new-found enthusiasm for character and personality rather than robotic gold-winning machines.

“The time in which we relied on sports to show our strength or prove our reputation is over, particularly after 2008,” they quoted Luo Le, a doctor in sports sociology in Beijing, as saying.

To be fair, the article did include quotes from netizens angry at the “waste of government funds” and the like.

An article popular on Weibo tried to explain the “secret” behind Britain’s success. Starting with a rather dubious argument from the distant mists of time that European countries naturally had an Olympic advantage because the Games were a Greek invention. It did eventually get to some well-reasoned analysis of the targeted funding of Team GB athletes and so on.

As ever there is a plurality of opinion on Weibo, the China correspondent’s go-to service when in need of bellwethers.

Some echoed the line above, while news agency AFP found a cracker from the other camp: “Screw you [China], not only have you fallen behind in gold, but you’re actually soon about to lose the medal count to an EU-quitting kingdom. The General Administration of Sports should commit harakiri and apologise.”

Maybe it would be better to apologise first.

Ironically, China’s Olympic woes come as the country forecasts, or again demands, a 15-fold increase in the value of their sports industry by 2025.

Many of the efforts in that vein by companies like Wanda and Alibaba are in the shape of lifestyle type events such as fun runs and marketing campaigns to get people generally more active, so they buy equipment.

With a massive new and burgeoning middle class, could the days when Olympic success in the state-run sport system was a ticket out of poverty be replaced by a culture of exercise for the sake of enjoyment and fitness.

That may be a healthier approach, figuratively and literally, but let’s see what happens in four years’ time if the medal count is down again in Tokyo 2020.

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