Sport has often had a strong political undertone in China. The state trains the vast bulk of athletes in a system inspired by the Soviet Union. And when the state-sponsored stars win, their achievement is typically framed as a victory for the nation, not the individual.
But in recent years the way that China treats its athletes has come in for widespread criticism. Many believe the system is too stifling and too old fashioned.
It was seen as telling that the tennis player Li Na only reached the summit of her sport when she quit the national programme and began hiring her own coaches.
So when video footage of the final stages of the Suzhou women’s marathon emerged this week, many were outraged.
It shows Chinese distance runner He Yinli competing with Ayantu Abera Demisse, from Ethiopia, over the final 500 metres of the race. They are running neck and neck when a race volunteer suddenly runs out and tries to get He to take a Chinese flag for the last few steps of the race. The athlete sidesteps the woman and carries on as the volunteer chases after her.
As He is beginning to gain on Demisse another volunteer appears. This time, she gets her to take a flag. The runner struggles with the rain-soaked fabric for a few paces then allows it to fall to the ground.
The sports commentator remarks at the time that the incident has put He off her stride. No one interrupts Demisse’s final efforts, and ultimately she wins the final sprint and the race.
“Why put the national image ahead of an individuals’ hard-earned victory?” asked one furious weibo user.
“This desire for propaganda reflects the vanity of officials,” said another.
A smaller group of netizens lashed out at He for dropping the national flag on the ground, which led her to put out a statement saying that it had slipped from her hand due to the wet weather.
Initially the marathon organisers – state broadcaster CCTV, ZhiMei Sports and the Chinese Athletics Association – said that the flag-bearing volunteers had acted of their own accord. But later it emerged that their intervention had been pre-planned.
This week many news outlets have been calling for an end to the practice.
“For professional long-distance runners, their rhythm in the final stage is particularly important. If the organiser can understand the importance of this…this amateur behaviour would not happen,” claimed Reference News, a website backed by the state news agency Xinhua.
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