Sport, Talking Point

On your marks

What has Rio told us about China’s changing approach to the Olympics?

Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Diving, Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre, Brazil - 14Aug 2016

A modest proposal: Chinese couple fail to capture Olympic diving golds but win hearts and minds globally

For many Chinese citizens the Summer Olympics have long been a source of national pride. But at the ongoing Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro China’s efforts to export its soft power have also received an unexpected boost from American swimming legend Michael Phelps.

The 31 year-old cemented his place as the most decorated Olympian in history in Brazil this month by adding five gold medals to his record tally of 23. Meanwhile Phelps also made headlines because of photos showing large circular bruises on his back and shoulders.

Onlookers from the West were bemused as Phelps was not the only athlete from Team USA sporting the unsightly marks. Of course, these were instantly recognisable to most Chinese as the result of cupping, a popular form of treatment in the field of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Western journalists were forced to offer their readers a crash course on cupping and what it was supposed to remedy. A BBC journalist even tried it first hand. Known as huoguan, which means ‘fire cupping’, the technique is done by lighting flammable liquid in a small glass cup and placing it over a sore body part (usually the back). The flame burns away the oxygen in the cup and creates a vacuum. Once the flames goes out, the vacuum causes suction and pulls the skin from the body, thus leaving red spots which, since caused by ruptured capillaries, typically last for a few days.

There is archaeological evidence that cupping has been practiced in China for at least 3,000 years. TCM practitioners suggest huoguan enhances blood flow as well as one’s inner qi, an integral form of body energy (according to TCM principles). However, the precise medical value of cupping, just like many other TCM beliefs, is extremely difficult to prove scientifically. Hence a vote of confidence from Michael Phelps was viewed by Chinese media as a priceless endorsement of Chinese medicine.

“There is no better ambassador than Phelps,” said Legal Daily. “This is a great promotion of traditional Chinese medicine in front of elite athletes from all over the world.”

But what else have the Rio 2016 games taught China about the world and the world about China?

A less golden time for China…

Over the course of the 20th century the US routinely grabbed close to 20% of all the medals awarded at summer Olympiads. That figure has been nearly halved in the past two decades because of the rise of developing countries, most especially China. In other words, the medal table mirrors the shape of world politics and the global economy in general.

For China the Olympics occupy a special place in the national psyche too. Since it began competing in 1984, its athletes have been trained through a gruesome state-run programme that’s designed to ensure maximum success on the medal podium. As we reported four years ago, the Chinese system led to stellar results in Beijing in 2008 when it topped the table. China got 51 gold medals, 15 more than the US, a feat that swelled national pride and a sense of growing strength. (Indeed, as we pointed out in WiC160, some saw it as a psychological tonic, assuaging a collective inferiority complex – one that’s still indoctrinated into Chinese by the nation’s school curriculum – over the humiliations of the nineteenth century when China was trampled by foreign colonial powers.)

In fact, China has not finished below second in the medal standing since 2004. However, heavy defeats in sports usually dominated by the Chinese have left pundits predicting that Rio 2016 could see the country’s worst medal haul since 1996, when China finished fourth with just 16 gold medals in Atlanta. For instance, Chinese gymnasts failed to win a single event this time (they grabbed 13 gold medals in Beijing and London). The shooting team also only had one gold.

Despite having sent its largest overseas delegation ever (including 416 athletes), China’s gold-medal count at the halfway mark in Rio stood at 13. That compares with 25 by the same point in London 2012. China spent most of this week languishing in an unfamiliar third place behind the US and Great Britain (with a population around 23 times smaller).

“You’re kidding me? The country [Great Britain] which has never finished above China is about to,” an overwrought Xinhua said on its official English-language Twitter account on Monday, alongside a photo of the medals tally. (The tweet has since been deleted.)

The country’s top sports officials have already warned that Chinese athletes would face bigger hurdles in Rio 2016, such as an unfamiliarity with South America and rule changes in some of China’s sweet-spot events. Sina Sports also suggests that the country is now feeling the backlash for pushing too hard to win the 2008 Games. Most of the state-run training programmes since 2001 (when Beijing was confirmed as the host city) had prioritised producing elite sportspeople for the Beijing Olympiad, Sina Sports notes, meaning fewer resources were spent on training the younger athletes coming through today.

Any doping spats?

The main gripe for China at London 2012 related to uncorroborated suspicions about Ye Shiwen, then a 16 year-old who won swimming golds at the 200-metre and 400-metre individual medley. In her second victory, Ye broke the world record and swam the final 50-metre lap in a faster time than the men’s champion, leading to rumblings about the legality of her training regimen.

Ye entered the same events in Rio but failed to win a single medal. But trust was still in short supply at the pool. In 2014 the country’s superstar swimmer Sun Yang was banned for three months after failing a drug test. (China’s National Anti-Doping Agency Laboratory itself was suspended for up to four months in April by the World Anti-Doping Agency after submitting two false negative results during blind tests.)

This saw Sun vilified by his Rio rivals. Australian swimmer Mack Horton called Sun a drug cheat after the two clashed in training. He repeated the accusation after the 400-metre freestyle final, during which Horton dethroned Sun as the champion by a split second. “I used the word drug cheat because he was tested positive,” Horton said. “I just have a problem with him testing positive and still competing.” Understandably, this went down very badly among patriotic Chinese, who defended Sun’s integrity stoutly, swarmed Horton’s social media accounts and littered them with thousands of abusive comments.

Sun bounced back to win the 200-metre freestyle but failed to defend the gold medal in his signature event: the 1,500-metre freestyle race. Other favourite Chinese swimmers flopped too. Take Ning Zetao, the new swimming darling who became the first Asian to win the blue ribbon 100-metre freestyle event at the World Swimming Championships last year (see WiC292). Ning didn’t even make the final at this Olympiad. That meant Sun’s gold medal was the solitary win for the Chinese swimming team in Rio.

Rubbing salt into the wounds, Chen Xinyi, an 18 year-old female swimmer, also tested positive for banned substances.

So who have been the heroes for China in Rio?

Most tellingly the breakout star also comes from the Chinese swimming team, but not because of her performance in the water.

Fu Yuanhui is not an elite swimmer. However, the 20 year-old became an overnight sensation in China following a candid reaction to her third-place finish in the 100-metre backstroke final.

Fu initially thought she had failed to win a medal, then gasped joyfully when told by a television reporter that she had actually won bronze. “I think that that’s not bad at all… even though I didn’t win first place today I’ve already surpassed myself and I am happy with that,” Fu told state broadcaster CCTV. “I’m really pleased with my performance… I’ve already expended my primordial powers!”

Her theatrical post-race interviews quickly transformed Fu into an unlikely national hero. The number of fans following her weibo jumped by over 100 times to more than 6 million as of this week, and included many Chinese celebrities.

Now being dubbed by Chinese internet users as the ‘Primordial Girl’, everything Fu says is being viewed as adorable. She was even widely praised for discussing menstruation. “I feel I let my teammates down,” a visibly pained Fu told CCTV in another poolside interview following a poor relay race. “It’s because my period came yesterday, so I felt particularly tired.” Again this aroused massive comment and praise in China – because discussing periods is normally a culturally taboo subject among Chinese.

And Fu was not the only one to be applauded in Rio for breaking with the machine-like image of the Chinese Olympic squad. In a moment of great emotion, female diver He Zi got more than she bargained for as she accepted her silver medal for the 3-metre springboard event. Her teammate and fellow diver Qin Kai subsequently approached the podium, bent low on one knee and offered his girlfriend an engagement ring.

Some believe Qin put his girlfriend in a highly pressured situation but luckily things didn’t turn awkward as a tearful He said yes to his offer of marriage. “I didn’t know that he would propose today, and I didn’t expect that I would marry so early,” He said.

The marriage proposal has touched many onlookers back home – and illustrates the far greater media savvy of the younger generation of Chinese, who instinctively know the sort of things that will trend on WeChat and weibo. The Beijing Youth Daily reckons the engagement could go down as the most memorable moment for Team China at Rio 2016.

Is China about to ditch the gold medal obsession?

Dating a teammate has not been encouraged by Chinese sports officials, and especially not in the diving team, which is viewed as critical to earning the nation Olympic glory (Chinese divers have so far managed to win six out of the eight gold medals available in Rio).

A stunt like Qin’s would normally invoke the wrath of coaches and sporting officials for setting a bad example for younger athletes. The fact that Qin was allowed to propose in front of a global audience, Guangzhou Daily suggested, represents a significant shift in mentality within the previously ruthless state-run sports system (he later told reporters that everyone in the team apart from He had been informed of his plan).

“There is more room for the athletes to express their human sides,” the newspaper notes. “Both Qin and He have failed to win gold [the newly engaged couple got a silver and bronze in Rio] before their retirement and that has only made their story more touching… We no longer only care about the ‘golden boy, jade girl’ [i.e. those who come top].”

The emergence of Fu, who also failed to win gold, as an unlikely national hero has reinforced the changing attitude.

“The Primordial Girl and the netizens who appreciate her have taught all of us a lesson: sport is about the struggle and, especially, enjoyment, but most definitely not just about winning gold,” the People’s Daily said in a commentary.

“As our attitude matures, and we know how to better appreciate competition, we will be able to openly applaud our rivals to reflect our great country’s confidence and tolerance,” CCTV magnanimously proclaimed via its weibo. The article, which is titled “When we are no longer obsessed with gold medals”, was shared more than 12,000 times.

Chinese fans appear to be more tolerant of underperforming athletes. Ning Zetao, for example, was still warmly greeted by hundreds of fans at the airport when he returned to China despite failing to get into the final. The Guangzhou Daily notes that this is a remarkable change in mentality.

“At Los Angeles in 1984 Zhu Jianhua finished third in the high jump and became the first male from the People’s Republic of China to win an Olympic medal in a track and field event. But the windows of his home were still smashed by disappointed fans because everyone expected him to come back with a gold,” the newspaper recalls. “More than 30 years on, now we applaud Ning even when he has returned empty handed.”

Say goodbye to the state-funded sports regime too?

When it comes to China’s gold medal obsession, success has been largely driven by the country’s authoritarian training regime.

The Stalinist approach identifies promising children at a young age who then typically have to leave home to live and train in specialised sports schools. Officials choose which sport they do. The best ones climb the ranks, finally reaching the apex if they are selected to attend an elite training centre (see WiC14).

More than 2,000 state-funded sport training schools are responsible for training up to 95% of Chinese Olympians. A 2004 research report by the General Administration of Sport estimated that the governing body’s annual expenditure stood at Rmb5 billion a year. That meant that China had invested Rmb20 billion in the four years ahead of Athens 2004, and the country’s 32 gold medals came at a cost of Rmb700 million each.

The Chinese government is now planning to ditch the costly regime for a more market-driven approach. In a planning document published in 2014, the State Council promised to step back from over-regulation of the sports market and encourage private-sector capital to invest in the industry. The reform has been mostly felt in the football world, as local governments have shifted the responsibility of training young players to privately-run football clubs and enthusiastic tycoons (such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma).

“China is bidding farewell to the state-run sport regime in the same way as our economic planners are trying to ditch the obsession with chasing GDP growth,” Caixin Weekly notes.

The country’s booming consumer market is set to provide the much-needed driving force to propel the reform. For instance, Beijing Youth Daily notes that Ning has been dubbed ‘Mr One Billion’ given his commercial value is estimated to be worth Rmb1 billion ($151 million). With the spectacular rise of Fu’s popularity, the newspaper also says that it may now cost companies Rmb8 million to use the Primordial Girl’s image in ads.

Of course, old habits die hard. The state bodies which have trained these star athletes are still entitled to a cut of their endorsement fees, though the split is now much more transparent.

There is still friction, mind you. According to China Entrepreneur magazine, the national swimming team last year signed up dairy product producer Mengniu as its commercial sponsor. The contract covered all its swimmers including Ning. However, he then inked a personal contract to endorse the products of Mengniu’s rival Yili Group.

The result? Ning was initially dropped from the team by his infuriated coaches. China Entrepreneur said only a last-minute compromise got him a plane ticket to Rio. Again, this was a new phenomenon: China’s state sports bodies don’t usually back down. In this case they likely feared a social media backlash from Ning’s legions of fans.

Money may have been a factor too. “The National Swimming Training Centre is entitled to a 50% cut of Ning’s commercial income, his coaches get 12%, his agents have 15%. That leaves 23% for Ning himself,” a commercial sponsor told the magazine, adding “Strictly speaking he is not Mr One Billion, but in fact Mr 230 Million, and that is before tax.”

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