The fall of Liu

Hurdler fails again, China comes second in medal table

The fall of Liu

Nobody does it better? London’s ceremony was more ironic than Beijing’s

“Strange”, “baffling” and “surreal” was the take on the opening ceremony for the London Olympics at the end of last month – and that came from the show’s own director, Danny Boyle.

So spare a thought for what the Chinese must have made of proceedings, especially when even Britain’s neighbours were expressing confusion.

“Are we of the same species as the Brits?” asked the Spanish daily, El Mundo.

Just as WiC suggested in our last issue, London’s opening ceremony didn’t seek to compete directly with its Chinese predecessor, going for a theatrical and sometimes humorous approach, which contrasted to the epic scale and sense of perfection in Beijing four years ago.

As a result, the feedback in the Chinese media was magnanimous, with no one feeling that Beijing’s spectacular had come close to a challenge (ours was art form, Xinhua suggested, while London’s ceremony felt more like a party).

For the Chinese, some of the scenes were hard to fathom, not surprising when parts of the show were bewildering even for a British audience. That included some genuinely unexpected moments, like Queen Elizabeth’s stunt double joining James Bond in his plunge into the night sky above the Olympic Stadium. But even this earned Chinese admirers. “I understand now why the British love the Queen so much,” wrote one weibo user. “If Hu [Jintao – the Chinese president] had done that for the Beijing Olympics, we Chinese would have one reason to love him at least.”

How about the medal count? Here, the slightly subdued mood in China before the Games turned out to be well founded, as the United States came out on top both in terms of the number of golds and the total medals won.

The Chinese team – which topped the gold count in 2008 – had to be content with second place.

Typically, there was also controversy. As ever, the Chinese gymnasts looked like they needed collecting from kindergarten. But the main gripe in London related to uncorroborated suspicions about a 16 year-old swimmer, Ye Shiwen. She won gold at two events, setting an Olympic record for the 200-metre individual medley before following up with a world-best over 400 metres a few days later.

In her second victory, Ye swam the final 50 metres in a faster time than the men’s champion Ryan Lochte, leading to rumblings about the legality of her training regimen. Understandably, this went down very badly in China, where Ye’s achievement was defended stoutly.

“Negative comments about her and Chinese athletes come from deep bias and reluctance from the Western press to see Chinese people making breakthroughs,” ruminated an editorial in the Global Times. “If Ye were an American, the tone would be different.”

Similar comments mushroomed throughout the media, with the belief that China was being victimised in general. People’s Daily told readers that the West “is always biased towards anything related to China” and perceptions of anti-Chinese sentiment reached their peak when gymnast Chen Yibing failed to win gold after a stellar performance on the rings. A Brazilian won instead even though he stumbled on the dismount. China’s gymnastics coach didn’t mince his words, calling it “robbery”.

There was also bad blood in the badminton, where the Chinese pair of Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli was among eight players disqualified from the women’s doubles for deliberately playing poorly (a move designed to secure an easier route to the final). Unfortunately, their Korean opponents seemed to have similar ideas, which led to a ridiculous match in which all four players were warned by the umpire, and also roundly booed by the crowd.

The Chinese officials – alone among the three countries involved – accepted the disqualification without appeal, with the head of its delegation urging the two players to apologise.

But shortly afterwards Yu announced that she would be retiring – “Farewell my beloved badminton…(You) say we are disqualified. You have heartlessly shattered our dreams” was the lament – and there was widespread support at home, with the recognition that few Chinese players are likely to go against their coaches in deciding how to play each match.

Some turned their ire instead on the new round-robin rules in the badminton competition, with suspicion that they had been designed to weaken China’s chances of winning all the medals. There were similar complaints for the table tennis, where a larger ball and new limits on player entry per country were seen as part of an effort to erode Chinese dominance.

If so, it didn’t work – China took all four gold medals available.

Others saw deliberate attempts to lose as ‘strategy’ rather than cheating. As one contributor on Sina Weibo pointed out, this could be traced to a “difference in value systems”. The explanation was that “foreigners stress fairness and justice” while the Chinese “attach more importance to actual benefits and encourage making adaptations”.

Nevertheless, the contributor still understood why the badminton pair had been booted out: “This is the Olympic Games we are talking about. Now that you have come, you should act in line with the Olympic spirit.”

For the two gold medal prospects that we highlighted in our Talking Point last month, there were very different outcomes. For swimmer Sun Yang, there was triumph. He won two gold medals, becoming the first Chinese man in Olympic history to win in the pool in the 400-metre freestyle. He went on to deliver the 1,500-metre freestyle gold too, taking more than three seconds off the world record.

But for the 110-metre hurdler Liu Xiang it was a case of déjà vu, with his medal hopes once again curtailed by an Achilles tendon injury (he limped out of the Beijing Games in 2008 as well).

In London he pulled up at the first hurdle in his first heat, although at least he made more of a spectacle out of it this time, hopping manfully towards the finish line before planting a tender kiss on the final obstacle.

The dramatic footage of Liu’s painful progress (take your pick: a true reflection of the Olympic spirit, or a final effort to eke out a little commercial value for the sponsors) saw the TV commentators in full flow. A CCTV presenter even wept for Liu live on air: “He is like a soldier without a gun in his hand,” he sobbed. “All he can do is charge at the enemy’s fortress with his own body. Goodbye, Liu Xiang.”

Whatever his motivations, Liu’s days of top dollar sponsorship are now behind him. After his success in Athens his annual endorsement deals ballooned to Rmb163 million ($25.6 million) by 2007, says Innovative Finance Observation. But they began their decline after the disappointments of Beijing 2008. According to, Liu hadn’t signed any new sponsorship deals this year, with his contract revenues falling to just Rmb18 million.

Despite the massive letdown, the public response was again largely sympathetic. Often there was more rebuke for Liu’s coaches than for the athlete himself, with suggestions that he might have been pressured into competing despite his injury.

And sure enough, revelations began to emerge yesterday that state television bosses knew Liu was badly injured but had been prevented by a gagging order from saying so.

It was also suggested that the sobbing CCTV commentator had prepared four possible scripts for Liu’s exit, the South China Morning Post reports. Still, the authorities tried to keep things as positive as possible. “Instructions were circulated saying it should be considered a victory as long as Liu turned up at the starting line,” an insider told the newspaper.

The public can be forgiven for feeling a little manipulated. And there were even signs of a minor backlash against China’s “Soviet-style” sports system (something we talked about in our Talking Point in WiC160), with questions about the human cost for athletes like Liu. Also mentioned were the parents of Lin Qingfeng – a weightlifting gold – who said that they hadn’t seen their own son for so long that they didn’t recognise him on television. The father of Wu Minxia, who won her third diving gold in London, suggested something similar. “Long ago we accepted the reality that she no longer belongs to us,” he told the Shanghai press.

The reason? The demanding nature of China’s sporting regimen. “Family union and that sort of thing is unthinkable,” Wu senior suggested.

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