When China sent 710 athletes, coaches and officials to the Rio Games – its largest ever delegation to an away Olympics – it expected a comfortable second place in the table of gold medals, as it achieved in London four years ago.

After all, the delegation included 35 Olympic gold medallists – 27 from the London Games – and one of China’s biggest competitors, Russia, had seen its medal hopes seriously hit by the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban many of its athletes on suspicion of doping.

But ominous signs emerged on the very first day in Rio that things would not turn out as expected and might even go much worse.

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At past Games, China has often won its first golds in the women’s and men’s 10 metre air rifle, and in Rio its team boasted former and reigning champions.

But China completed the first full day of competition in Rio without a single gold. Not only did both men and women fail to take the top spot in the shooting, but defending champion Sun Yang lost to Australia’s Mack Horton in the men’s 400 metre freestyle swimming final. Even worse, Horton kicked up a fuss by accusing Sun of being a drugs cheat, referring to his three-month suspension in 2014 for taking a medicine containing a banned substance to treat his heart condition.

While the Chinese athletes soon rebounded and started to grab some golds, the pace was considerably slower than might have been expected. In the first 10 days ending August 16, China had bagged only 15 golds, 14 silvers and 17 bronzes – putting it in third place for gold medals, behind the United States and Great Britain. In the same period of the previous two summer Games, China had picked up 39 golds in Beijing and 31 in London.

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Most of the events in which China is most likely to win gold medals take place in the first half of the Games – diving, shooting, weightlifting, gymnastics, and swimming. The surprisingly low tally of golds during this period could mean China’s final gold haul at Rio could be the lowest in nearly 20 years, even lower than the 28 it won in Sydney in 2000. At the Beijing Games in 2008, China achieved its largest haul of golds – 51 – surpassing the US, and up from the 32 it achieved in Athens in 2004. By the end of London 2012, it had 38 golds.

What has gone wrong? That question will linger long after the Rio Games ends, but finding the reasons and the remedies hopefully can transform China’s state-dominated sports industry and propel it to a new level.

Some in mainland media have already started to find excuses and scapegoats for the underperformances of Chinese athletes, blaming judges for giving low scores to Chinese competitors in boxing, gymnastics, fencing and sailing.

But such accusations, a source of complaints at every Games, are unconvincing. There has been no credible evidence that Chinese athletes have been singled out.

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What is not disputable is that the overall level and capabilities of the Chinese athletes in those events in which they traditionally do well have fallen sharply. For instance, China won only one gold in swimming at Rio (it won five in London), and Chinese gymnasts clinched only two bronzes, compared to 9 golds in Beijing. By contrast, the US, Japan and South Korea have made rapid advances in events once dominated by the Chinese.

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More importantly, the underperformances highlight a critical phase for China. The medal winners from previous Games may be long past their prime, but the younger generation are not yet capable or experienced enough to take over.

For instance, the US shooter Virginia Thrasher, who won the first gold medal of the Rio Olympics, was just 19 and this was her first Games. Du Li, who won the silver, was 34. Rio was her fourth Olympics and she won the title at the same event 12 years ago in Athens.

And many of today’s athletes don’t train as hard as their older colleagues who were usually plucked from the poor countryside and strove for gold as their only way to wealth and fame. The younger athletes, mostly from single-child families, are pampered and seem more interested in their newfound celebrity status and advertising dollars.

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Finally, the problems inherent in the state-sponsored sports system, which focuses resources on winning gold medals, are such that it is experiencing a cyclical low and is crying out for further reforms – much like the Chinese economy, which has slowed from 9 per cent growth in 2008, when China scored 51 golds, to somewhere about 6.7 per cent this year.

But amid the pessimism comes a positive shift in public sentiment. In the past, mainlanders would slam athletes who failed to win medals as they linked their achievements to national pride and patriotism. Judging from online comments, this year there seems to be more understanding than criticism.

Hopefully this shift can help spur changes to the rigid state sports regime that would allow younger generations to enjoy sports first and foremost, and widen the talent pool to groom more capable and aspiring athletes to regain past glories.

Greater public participation in sport would also turn it into a major driver of economic growth.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper