If diplomatic schmoozing were an Olympic sport, Xi Jinping might be up for a gold medal.
Two days before the 2014 Winter Olympics were about to begin in Sochi, the Chinese president broke with normal protocol by flying to Russia in apparent support of his embattled counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Most presidential trips are flagged well in advance. But Xi’s appearance seems to have surprised the Chinese public. Many other foreign leaders have decided to stay away from the Winter Olympics amid security concerns and controversy surrounding a new Russian law targeting “homosexual propaganda to minors”.
Xi seemed to have fewer concerns. “On a neighbour’s joyous occasion it is customary to offer one’s congratulations in person,” he explained, in what was the first visit by a top Chinese leader to a major sporting event overseas.
As if to quell the negative reports about slushy snow and shoddy facilities, Xi added that the games would be a “splendid and an unforgettable event”.
The People’s Daily was in no doubt about the trip’s significance: “This shows that China is interacting with the international community with a major power-oriented diplomacy full of Chinese characteristics… with a more confident attitude and more sophisticated techniques.”
Sophisticated techniques were also being deployed in the Chinese media, however, as it sought to downplay the low medal count from the country’s athletes.
“Before, gold medals signified the power of our state and the arrival of China on the international scene. Today, however, Chinese people have a bigger dream: that sports will be available to all and that people will exercise to stay healthy, not just to win prizes,” extolled Xinhua.
Other newspapers tried a different tack, suggesting that China might be missing out because it doesn’t have enough internationally-recognised referees to send to the winter events.
“If a country doesn’t have a referee it is equivalent to losing the right to speak in the game,” the Xinmin Evening News lamented.
Not that it has been a terrible showing for all the Chinese athletes thus far.
On the plus side for Beijing, at least Zhou Yang, the speed skater who caused a stir by thanking her parents instead of the state sports authorities at the last Winter Olympics, remembered to mention Xi Jinping this time when she retained her gold.
Two other female speed skaters took gold in the 500m short track and 1000m long track events, taking China’s medal tally to six, including a silver for men’s speed skating and a silver and a bronze for the aerial skiers. As WiC goes to press, China’s chances of getting as many medals as it did in Vancouver in 2010 – when it won 11— look slim.
Hopes are again riding on the speed skaters and the male curling team which rather amazingly, given the short 15-year history of the sport in China, might take a bronze just as the much loved women’s team did in Vancouver.
Sadly that team failed to make it past the semi-finals this time but that hasn’t damped chatter about the sport which is referred to as binghu, or ice kettle in Chinese, because of the shape of the stone.
“This game is totally in accordance with the Chinese aesthetic – elegance and wisdom,” wrote one of curling’s newest fans on weibo.
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